Bassist Michael Formanek certainly goes the distance on this grand endeavor, on which he fronts Ensemble Kolossus, an 18-piece band that leans heavily toward a kind of modern Third Stream. He folds in multiple reference points that range from Olivier Messiaen and Ornette Coleman to Charles Mingus and Henry Threadgill. Thanks to Formanek’s deft compositions, the results never come off as mere pastiche.
The fascinating eight-movement Exoskeleton suite occupies the bulk of the disc and functions as its emotional center. Exuding a widescreen cinematic splendor, the suite comes with punchy rhythmic motifs, striking dissonant harmonic stretches, luring melodies and enough improvisational brio to sustain interest during its hour-plus duration. Instead of writing standard-issue charts, Formanek penned the parts specifically for each musician, many of whom are longtime collaborators. A few individual highlights: Brian Settles’ tenor saxophone asides on the languorous title track; Ralph Alessi’s dry lyricism and spiky improvisations on the blithe “Exoskeleton: Part IV – Echoes”; and Mary Halvorson’s rough-hewn guitar-texture essay on the aforementioned piece.
Still, those and other exhilarating parts don’t exceed the poignancy of the greater whole. Despite being written with specific musicians in mind, Formanek’s Exoskeleton has the makings of a 21st-century classic. It brims with rich melodicism, textural wonder and sonic imagination.