Michael Formanek: Small Places (ECM/Ode)

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Michael Formanek: Slightly Off Axis
Michael Formanek: Small Places (ECM/Ode)

A 2010 album from a band lead by bassist Michael Fomanek -- the excellent The Rub and Spare Change -- brought an unexpectedly vigorous, Downtown NYC sound to the ECM label. It seemed a rare one in the label's often poised, sometimes emotionally distant but always interesting roster.

Perhaps after being stung by the critical and listener reaction to bands like the post-punk jazz of Lask back in the Eighties, label boss Manfred Eicher was relctant to go quite that far out again.

Small Places certainly doesn't approach the wildness of Lask, guitarist David Torn and others of that period in the label's history, but it again has an edge as the same band of saxophonist Tim Berne (undeniably toned down from his particular head rushes in the Eighties), pianist Craig Taborn and drummer Gerald Cleaver keep in mind the possibilities of free jazz while cutting up highly focused and energetic pieces like the slightly bent-outta-shape Pong or the woozy romanticism of  Wobble and Spill 

But there is also quieter consideration too as on the expansive, slow and exploratory 18-minute Parting Ways where the rhythmic undercurrents from Cleaver and Formanek (with some soft acro work) keep you alert while Taborn turns in a lead part of focused intensity.

The final piece Soft Reality is its equal and opens with a slightly eerie pastoral feel before Formanek's acro work takes it to an almost holy place over a gentle drone then Berne digs into a similarly deep emotional place.

This is now a seasoned working band after being pulled together for The Rub and The Spare Change (which scored a hugely favourable review at Elsewhere and five stars in Downbeat) and they really have bedded in to a distinctive style.

Pretty damn terrific, and again an album that heads towards the outer limits of ECM's admittedly broad parameters. 

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