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Jazz Review: Michael Formanek Quartet at the Blue Whale

June 2, 2011 |  2:07 pm

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With his black camp shirt and silver goatee, sturdily built New York City bassist Michael Formanek on Wednesday night looked a bit more like a guy who restores muscle cars than a top-flight jazz bandleader.  Such preconceptions are silly, of course, but the image kept coming to mind watching Formanek team at the Blue Whale with pianist Craig Taborn, alto saxophonist Tim Berne and drummer Gerald Cleaver, forming a four-headed monster of veteran improvisation. Given the talent on hand, Formanek seemed like a man eager to open the throttle and see how far his new hot rod could take the standing-room-only crowd.

Which isn't to say Formanek needs the additional horsepower. Over a 30-plus year career, he's teamed with Freddie Hubbard, Dave Liebman and a host of downtown NYC fixtures, but his knotty yet lovely 2010 album "The Rub and Spare Change" is his first as a leader since 1998.

A rare West Coast reconvening of that album's ensemble, the night opened with the record's most unsettled piece, the three-part "Tonal Suite." In a tempestuous midsection, Formanek hammered on his strings while Berne circled the song's unsteady core, teaming and tangling with Taborn's chunky, Monkish chords. Reaching for a small, cracked cymbal that looked as if he found it under a truck tire, Cleaver clanged out an insistent beat that rose out of the controlled chaos and called the band together into uniform groove so suddenly it was almost alarming, like waking up in a strange room.

Rising out of a flickering, gently exploring melody by Taborn, "Twenty Three Neo" showcased Formanek's composing at its most atmospheric. With the bassist sawing a low drone, Berne dipped his tone into a growling harmony before rising into Eastern-tinged melody that steadily twisted into something more dramatic as Cleaver tapped out a darkly martial rhythm. Straddling a gently sketched line between jazz and classical, the piece closed the first set with a hazy beauty.

"Seeds" continued the evening's trend of constant evolution as the song began with a thick, walking bass line from Formanek that led the group into a nocturnal sort of ease before melting into Berne's woozy melody. Gradually the song shifted into another plane as Formanek furiously fanned his strings and Taborn attacked his piano in a blur of flailing arms and tumbling notes, spurring the group into an explosion of raw expression. It was a breathtaking display, made even more so as the group came  together again with a subtle but clockwork efficiency, a finely tuned machine at peak performance.

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-- Chris Barton

Photo: From left, Gerald Cleaver, Craig Taborn, Michael Formanek and Tim Berne. Credit: ECM Records

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