Some musician or in this case a formidable quartet make a name by playing outside the box. The ensemble sometimes pushes the sonic barriers to the extent that box begins to break down.
Michael Formanek and this fearsome 4tet don't do that, they have the amazing ability to simply extend the boundaries of the same box on the fly without ever losing a certain accessibility or pushing them self or the listener off that self indulgent cliff. The latest release Small Places may well be not only the best example of what I mean but perhaps Formanek's finest work to date. The follow up to Formanek's ECM debut as a leader, The Rub and Spare Change features the same all star line up of Tim Berne on alto saxophone, Craig Taborn on piano and Gerald Cleaver on drums and shruti box and is a natural evolution to where critically acclaimed The Rub and Spare Change left off. Small Place's compositions and improvisational make up are sonic synchronicity with a pulse. An ambient atmosphere with rich melodic flavor and a rhythmic sense of urgency one can feel in their soul. A dynamic excursion into a harmonic world of possibilities.
A rare combination of a working band with four distinct individual voice that weave in and around each other while challenging each member to fine their own lyrical path. "Seeds and the Birdman" is a smoldering tune with an open ended swing and a mysterious dynamic tension created in particular by pianist Craig Taborn. "Parting Ways" is an 18 minute epic with the band dialed in with intensity and that elusive lyrical sense of purpose and direction that often eludes similar quartets. While Formanek and Tim Berne play as though they were twin sons of different mothers, the rhythm section of Taborn on piano and drummer Gerald Cleaver are not to be outdone in the ability to shift their dynamics on the fly while fitting in each composition like missing puzzle pieces. "Small Places" opens the release with Taborn and alto saxophone titan Tim Berne who swings from a place far deeper than one can imagine. The percussive articulation of the opening sets up a mysterious melodic anticipation before Taborn sets out on his own sonic exploratory of harmonic genius. As a rule critics should tread carefully when using words such as genius or brilliant but how does one completely ignore the blatantly obvious? A shared perspective is all I offer. The closing tune "Soft Reality" is where the artistry of Formanek truly shines. A wistful tune with a mysterious haze envelopes the listener with Formanek's zen like approach of no notes wasted, less is more and every note counts. The organic depth of this composition borders on the neo-classical with a beauty that defies accurate description. Berne joins in and reaches sonic heights that most alto players or saxophonists in general can work a career for and never achieve.
ECM is well known for pristine sound and a virtual sonic ebb and flow indicative of the artist featured on the release in question. Small Places is Michael Formanek's compositional and performance journey into a new realm. Small Places contains an ebb and flow within individual tunes that are as emotional and evocative as the legendary cover art ECM is known for. When held up to critical review, Small Places is literally the perfect recording.
I totally agree with the previous reviewer (Brent). The "Rub and Spare Change" was an excellent record but "Small Spaces" is exceptional in every aspect. I am most impressed with Formanek's writing this time out. The compositions are well thought out and give the supporting cast plenty of ground to explore and engage each other. This band is tightly wound but loose and free at the same time. Tim Berne has really grown on me over time and his dialog with Craig Taborn on this disc remind me of the Jan Garbarek / Bobo Stenson chemistry in the 70's. Formanek has found an equal partner in Gerald Cleaver. Together they form the perfect rhythm section to lift the music to the highest level of enjoyment. This is adventuresome Jazz - music that simmers slowly and makes you listen intently while smiling along the way. It is great to see Michael reach this level of excellence and stand shoulder to shoulder with other exceptional Bassist like Dave Holland, Arild Anderson, David Friesen and Christian McBride. I am looking forward to this quartet's next recording. Well done Mr. Formanek!
With the assemblage of talent in this band, Michael Formanek's quartet is easily among the top tier of small jazz ensembles practicing today. What an amazing group, and it's easy to see why they (deservedly) scored consecutive 5-star ratings from Downbeat magazine on their last two releases. As good as their first ECM recording "The Rub and Spare Change" was, "Small Places" is at least as good, if not just a shade better, if only because the interaction between these players is even more sensitive, and often telepathic!
SImply said, this is so far among the best modern new music albums of this century! .... not only the playing by all but the composing. Formanek put together a masterpiece... good for ECM for putting it out!!