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Michael Formanek: Practice What You Teach

Bassist, composer and Peabody Conservatory faculty member unites the bandstand and the classroom

Gerald Cleaver, Craig Taborn, Michael Formanek and Tim Berne
Gerald Cleaver, Craig Taborn, Michael Formanek and Tim Berne
Michael Formanek with Peabody students Dan Cherouny and Jason Rogers

The boom in jazz education over the past 20 years has had many consequences, both intentional and unintentional. In the latter category has been a radical if under-recognized decentralization of jazz. For decades New York had pulled top jazz talent out of cities all over the world. But since 1990, jazz education has proved quite a magnet itself, pulling many of those same musicians out of New York and into colleges here, there and everywhere. The result of this reverse migration has affected not only students in classrooms, but also the migrants themselves-and not just because of the steady paycheck. When those transplants get the itch to play outside a classroom or recital hall, they venture into the local music scene. When they do, the locals benefit from the high standards that New Yorkers take for granted, and the newcomers benefit from hearing undiscovered talents who are free of New York clichés.

Consider the case of Michael Formanek. The bassist moved from his native Northern California to New York in 1978 at age 20. Over the next 23 years, he recorded and/or toured with the likes of Fred Hersch, Freddie Hubbard, Uri Caine, Gary Thomas, Dave Ballou, Tim Berne, Lee Konitz, Chet Baker and Marty Ehrlich and released five well-received albums under his own name. By 2001, though, he had tired of the sideman’s treadmill of always gigging or hustling for gigs. He accepted a part-time teaching position in the newly founded jazz department at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, and when the job became full time in 2003, he moved his family down to Towson, an inside-the-Beltway suburb. Formanek soon discovered that he had joined not just an academic institution but also a local music scene, much smaller and less celebrated than New York’s but one with its own character and assets.

Formanek was soon a regular presence at local venues. He’s a big bear of a man with a salt-and-pepper goatee, thick glasses, unruly brown hair and a frame as broad as his big-bellied upright. He uses his minotaur torso to wrestle his instrument into robust, rhythmically inventive phrases that demand considerable attention in any band-whether with visiting friends from New York like Berne and Ehrlich or Baltimore-based players such as David Murray’s pianist Lafayette Gilchrist or saxophonist John Dierker. When George Garzone came to Baltimore in December 2006, for example, the saxophonist didn’t bring his own band but instead asked Formanek to assemble a group. The bassist picked his old Manhattan buddy Dave Ballou, a trumpeter and fellow academic migrant at nearby Towson University; Gilchrist; saxophonist Greg Thompkins from Gilchrist’s local band, the New Volcanoes; and drummer Dan Marcellus, Formanek’s student at Peabody.

The six musicians climbed the long steep stairs to the second-floor performance space above An die Musik, a downtown record store. Inside the space were 15-foot-high ceilings, a blond-wood stage and 80 pink-and-white-striped arm chairs. The feel was more of a European salon than a barroom jazz club, but many of the chairs were filled by Formanek’s and Ballou’s students. Those undergrads could hear every point the two teachers had tried to make all semester long applied in the turbulent action of the sextet’s set. They had heard all about the rhythm section being equal members of the band, but here was Formanek staking out his space with lines that pushed the horns in new directions. The students had copied down the concept of building an improvisation out of thematic material, but here were Garzone and Ballou recycling fragments of the head in their freewheeling solos. The students had absorbed the theory of collective improvisation in which each musician listens to every other player and reacts accordingly, but here were long pieces where Gilchrist would divert the music in a new direction with a new division of time and then a few choruses later Marcellus would do the same.

“I had brought George down to Peabody to do a Friday workshop and concert with the student big band,” Formanek remembers, “and that was cool. Like anything we do, we try to make it as real as possible, but still it’s a school gig. For me, it was important to follow that up that Friday show with a Saturday gig where George could blow with a small group of his peers in a real venue. It was good for the students to grasp the full possibilities of what they’d experienced the night before. I think they really got it: ‘Wow, this is not just playing a 32-bar solo in a big-band arrangement; this is really developing a theme and interacting with all the other musicians.'”

The An die Musik show had no official connection to either Peabody or Towson University, but it wouldn’t have been possible if those schools hadn’t hired Formanek and Ballou. But not only did the local music scene benefit from the schools; the schools also benefitted from the local scene. Taking jazz courses at a college can give you more theory and more history more effectively than any number of backstage conversations or rehearsal-break storytelling. But there’s no substitute for turning that knowledge into action before a paying audience of strangers in a band led by experienced professionals. Formanek is adamant that the best jazz education has to include both-the classroom and the club, the theory and the practice-and he couldn’t do that if he didn’t have both Peabody and An die Musik.

“I remember when I started playing with Dave Liebman when I was 18,” Formanek remembers. “Suddenly I was in an entirely different league, being asked to play polychords that I’d never heard of. I would have loved to have had someone sit down and explain that to me. That’s what jazz education does really well: It gives students theory, history and technique, because it has the resources and teachers to deliver that information efficiently. And efficiency is important, because there’s so much a jazz musician has to absorb these days-more repertoire, more approaches, more history, how to run a record company or a Web site. But all that information is of limited value if you don’t know how to apply it on the bandstand. If you get your degree in jazz, go to your first gig and the leader says, ‘Play an unaccompanied intro,’ or ‘After the head, we’ll go into free improv,’ or ‘We’ll play this in 7/4,’ you don’t want to say, ‘Well, they didn’t teach us that in school.’ If kids are going to come to Peabody and spend a lot of money, I want to give them the real deal, so they’re prepared when they get to that first gig.”

Peabody’s jazz department is still relatively new; it’s not yet a decade old, and even today the only full-time faculty are Formanek and Department Chairman Gary Thomas. Such newness can be both an advantage and disadvantage. It provides a clean slate where Formanek can pursue his ideas about combining theory and practice. But the program’s lack of history and alumni-turned-stars also makes it tough to get funding, applications and recognition. “There’s more room at a new program to try out different ways of teaching jazz,” Formanek explains. “Gary’s been very good about hiring faculty with different strengths and letting them emphasize those strengths rather than making them conform to a set way of doing things. It’s more like a democratic jazz combo than a jazz orchestra where the bandleader sets the rules.

“As a result,” he continues, “students who come through the program are exposed to a lot of different styles of teaching and styles of jazz, unlike some programs that emphasize one particular approach. The challenge, though, is getting the word out to the rest of the world that Peabody is a strong program and that Baltimore is a cool city for jazz. I think students get that when they come here, but that’s not something someone is going to figure out as a high school student in Portland, Oregon.”

Dave Ballou has done a good deal to promote Baltimore’s jazz stature; this past December, for instance, Towson University presented John Hollenbeck’s Claudia Quintet as part of the drummer’s week-long residency. Ballou shares Formanek’s sentiments about how jazz education should balance the classroom and the bandstand. “It’s a real interesting time in jazz education,” he explains, “because most students realize there’s a gap between traditional jazz education and what actually happens at a gig. The old, informal system of jazz education-where you learned by sitting in at jam sessions and talking to older musicians-often left gaps in your knowledge. Schools are real good at filling in those gaps, but they’re weak on the practical experience that the old system was so good at. One of the ways to bridge the two is to push students to make decisions in real playing situations rather than giving them tests where there are right and wrong answers. When I get calls for student musicians, for example, I’ll ask one of the more responsible kids to be the bandleader and have them hire and run the band and handle the money. I keep an eye on it to make sure things don’t fall apart, but it’s worked pretty well so far.”

One of the theories that Formanek emphasizes to his students is the complicated relationship between composition and improvisation in jazz. On Oct. 12 his students will be able to hear their teacher put that theory into action on his first album as a leader in a dozen years: The Rub and Spare Change, his debut for the acclaimed ECM label. The disc features his New York quartet (alto saxophonist Tim Berne, pianist Craig Taborn and drummer Gerald Cleaver) rather than his Baltimore quartet (Ballou, Dierker and drummer Will Redman), but the approach is the same. A lifelong admirer of composers such as Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Sam Rivers, Formanek wants to write more than a short head that leads to a series of solos that may or may not have much to do with the opening theme; he wants to write music that informs and channels the improvisation. On the other hand, he doesn’t want the music to be so structured that it eliminates the possibility of surprise. It’s a tricky balance to strike, but Formanek nails it on his new record.

“It’s one thing to improvise freely,” Formanek says, “but it’s another to have music that generates ideas and shapes the improvisation. That’s what I’m interested in: improvisation that develops an idea for a long time. Musicians will often be throwing ideas out there to see what will stick, but one of the signs of mature improvisers is the ability to stay with an idea and not bale when something else comes along; instead they incorporate that something else into the original idea. I’m a bass player and I tend to approach things rhythmically because that’s the way I think. I’m interested in the way subdivisions of time-triplets or 16th notes-work against a slower, implied groove. It’s nice when a band keeps that groove in mind all the way through a piece. That doesn’t mean they keep playing the same thing, but that they will play all the different aspects of that groove. The band on this record can do that. They play the composed music like it was improvised and they improvise like they were composing.”

You can hear what he means on the new album’s key piece, the 17-minute “Tonal Suite,” cobbled together from three earlier unrecorded tunes. It begins with a muscular descending line from the bass, and for the first 75 seconds the quartet traverses a tricky notated section where each musician plays a slightly altered version of that motif-adding or displacing notes-but fitting it all together like a puzzle. The shift into collective improvisation is subtle; the alterations become more pronounced but the theme is always implied. As the band nears the five-minute mark, a crescendo dwindles away, creating room for Formanek to introduce his second theme, a different descending line with a pause and leap at the end. Again a tightly wound notated section gradually unravels into improvisation, but the dangling strands are still audible, especially in Berne’s melancholy lower-register meanderings.

There aren’t solos and comping in the traditional sense; it’s more that one voice steps forward for a while from the collective improvisation and then steps back again. Around the 11-minute mark, the meditative tempo begins to quicken as if building toward the next notated section at the 13-minute mark. That introduces a jittery, rambunctious theme that will inform the next stretch of improvisation, especially Taborn’s stop-and-go bursts of 16th notes. Finally all the strands are woven together again for a jaunty march at the end. What’s exciting about the piece is the way the written material-which traces an emotional arc from agitated to regretful to renewed-provides a common topic for musical conversation. It’s that topic that makes it a four-way discussion and not just four monologues.

“In this music,” Formanek explains, “it’s more important to know where you’re going than where you are. If I know at some point I have to play this bassline at this tempo, I try to develop a logical improvisation that will get me there. When I compose a piece like ‘Tonal Suite,’ I want it to start here and go there, so I have to trust that the musicians will respect that. I don’t say, ‘Tim will solo at the 48th bar,’ but I will say, ‘It’s going to start as a collective with Craig playing eighth notes while Gerald and I play dotted quarters and then it will break down into improvisation. It will come back together for a middle section with an implied Motown groove, then it will break down again. The last part starts slow in five then starts to groove in seven.’ Odd time signatures are not something I use to be hip; that’s just the way I hear time. After I’ve invented a line, I go back and count it, and it’s always a five or seven. Maybe I have arrhythmia of the heart.”

“If you have notated music and then just go ahead and play whatever you want,” Berne asks, “what’s the point of having the notated music in the first place? I’m interested in connecting the dots in Mike’s music, in discovering its logic, so I can take advantage of that when I improvise. Playing with Mike requires a certain selflessness, where you don’t care about getting applause for yourself. I don’t even think of solos and comping, or of frontline and rhythm section. I think of us as four strong opinions each having his say. Mike gets to put his stamp on the group with his compositions, but then he’s smart enough to hire good musicians and let them run with it.”

“If I’m writing for improvisers,” Formanek adds, “I don’t want to dictate what they do. If I want to hear everything the way I hear it, I’ll write for a big band or classical group; I’ll write every note and articulation. That can be exciting but not as exciting as writing for improvisers. You hire musicians like Tim, Craig and Gerald because they will change what you give them and make something new out of it. But even my pieces for improvisers usually have a beginning, middle and end, and the drama depends on all three happening.”

The quartet played its first show at the Stone on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in August 2008, but Formanek had been playing with Berne for 20 years and with Taborn and Cleaver for roughly 10 years apiece. “The Stone was started by John Zorn as a musician-run club,” Formanek explains. “It’s not much bigger than my living room; it’s hot and tight, like a pressure cooker. That was a terrific gig. All the things happened that you can never plan, because there was so much confidence and trust on that stage. Tim and I share a lot of the same aesthetics; we have a lot of vamps and grooves in common. Craig is a walking encyclopedia of music; he’s always telling my son Peter about some underground metal band to check out. Gerald’s from Detroit, so he’s versed in Motown, bop and free improvisation. They’re all very creative, but that creativity is rooted in tradition and composition.”

Formanek was so inspired after that gig that he wanted to record the band. He hadn’t released a CD since his unaccompanied bass project from 1998, Am I Bothering You? , and he hadn’t released a band project since 1997’s Nature of the Beast with Berne, Dave Douglas and others. He had made a conscious decision to not do a recording project while settled in at Peabody, but by 2008 he felt he had a good handle on the teaching gig and started looking around for opportunities. Because his teaching job allowed him to stay in one place for most of the year without constant touring, he found that he was composing a lot more music than he ever had and he wanted to document it with the New York quartet. He didn’t have a label deal but he did have a small professional-development grant from Peabody, so he took the group into a studio in rural New Jersey in June 2009. Berne’s wife, Sara, works in the ECM office and she sent a copy of the session to the label’s founder, Manfred Eicher. Eicher responded quickly and said he wanted to release the record after he remixed it. Formanek, astounded by this unexpected break, eagerly joined Eicher in the studio that fall. “Manfred has very specific ideas about sound,” Formanek reports. “He was hearing everything and created space in the sound that allowed the music to breathe more, to be more open and inviting.”

Sitting on a barstool in the kitchen of his Towson home, Formanek wears a Shank’s Strings T-shirt, jean shorts and silver-framed glasses. He looks out the kitchen window, past his leafy backyard and toward “the road” that he will hit once again this fall to support the new album. He knows it will be a tricky juggling act to balance a tour with his classroom obligations, but he also knows that the two are inextricably entangled. He can’t prepare his students for the life of the touring musician if he doesn’t keep one foot in that life himself. At the same time, he can’t keep up his recent outpouring of compositions if he doesn’t have the stability of the teaching gig. “I was brought to Peabody not for my longstanding contributions to jazz education,” he points out, “but because of my involvement with recording and live performance and my ability to articulate the nuts and bolts of that. So playing out keeps me on my game. I teach as much by example as by what I say.” Originally Published