Recorded live “somewhere” in 2014, Pre-Apocalyptic is the third and most impassioned album by bassist Michael Formanek’s quartet. The release itself is almost offhand, part of a COVID-inspired digital-only series by Out of Your Head devoted to live or home studio recordings released “with a quicker turnaround” (likely shorthand for “less post-production polish”) than traditional studio recordings. Ethically, it’s great; all proceeds go directly to the artist, except for one dollar donated to a charity of the artist’s choosing, in this case Black Lives Matter.
But honestly? Even if the money went straight to the devil, I would say buy this album, because the music is that good. Formanek’s quartet, with Tim Berne on alto, Craig Taborn on bass, and Gerald Cleaver on drums, offers an almost perfect balance between combo writing and free-form improvisation. Some of that stems from Formanek’s gift for composing tunes that offer enough melody to inspire the players but not so much that the writing hems them in.
“Pong,” which opens the album, is a perfect example, with an echoing six-beat theme that sketches out formal interplay between bass and alto, with piano playing intermediary while the drums egg everyone on. As offered on the quartet’s second ECM album, Small Places, it’s a wonder of chamber-jazz rhythmic subtlety; here, though the dynamic range is broader, the music comes more quickly to the boil, with the improvisations—dominated by Berne’s evocatively vocalized alto—seeming almost to levitate the band. Granted, Cleaver’s cymbals aren’t recorded with the same clarity as in the ECM studios, but everything else is, remarkably, more vivid.
So it goes for the rest of the album. Formanek offers an astonishing solo to introduce “Soft Reality,” Taborn provides a wonderfully warped vision of postbop piano on “Small Places,” and Berne is almost incandescent in his slow-burning solo on “Rising Tensions and Awesome Light”—and those are only a few of the highlights. If you want to think of this as a charity album, consider yourself the beneficiary.