Today marks the official release date of The Rub and Spare Change, the ECM debut recording by the bassist/composer/improviser Michael Formanek. The six tracks that comprise this disc create an astonishingly beautiful and delightful listening experience. (Full disclosure: I am a huge fan of Formanek as a person and as a musician, having had the extraordinary pleasure of playing free improvisations with him; we are also colleagues on the faculty of the Peabody Conservatory.)
For this recording, Formanek created an all-star quartet with alto saxophonist Tim Berne, pianist Craig Taborn, and drummer Gerald Cleaver. Each of these players is an incredibly accomplished musician, and they have toured with each other in various combinations since 1991.
The disc consists of six tracks, all composed by Formanek. The shortest of these, Inside the Box, also is the most formally traditional. In this piece, a fast asymmetrical unison tutti gives way to a series of recognizably virtuosic solos featuring the saxophone and piano. In a satisfying twist, as the opening tune seems prepared to return near the end of the song, the players instead gradually fragment it, dissolving towards nothing. The solos in this track, with their jagged edges, extended harmonies and unusual phrasing, keep the listener’s interest.
The largest statement is that of Tonal Suite, which continues unabated for nearly twenty minutes. In this track, we feel the expansive growth of which these musicians are capable. The opening build lasts nearly four minutes, rising into a dual solo in which the saxophone and piano support each other in beautifully rendered counterpoint.
The opening track, Twenty Three Neo, is one of my all-time favorite new tunes. It opens with a quiet asymmetrical ostinato in the piano (varied in the drums) over which the bass buzzes using a wide variety of extended techniques. A gentle saxophone melody eventually appears and begins to develop as the central focus of the music. Cleaver then adds arabesque arpeggiations, into which the ostinato finally disappears. About five minutes into the track, the other instruments drop out, leaving only a spacious piano solo that also eventually fades into a single note. Repetitions of that note in an echo of the opening rhythm invite the ensemble back for a twisted coda that’s nearly half as long as the preceding song. This form surprises with each hearing, keeping the musical experience continually fresh.
The music on this disc is simultaneously beautifully moving and excitingly raw. Formanek has incredibly catholic tastes (he counts the band Meshuggah and Morton Feldman among his favorite music—a point of agreement between the two of us) and these disparate influences help him to create sonic landscapes that continually surprise and intellectually satiate this listener.
I can’t wait to hear this group play live on their upcoming tour.