Michael Formanek's Ensemble Kolossus Goes 'The Distance' on New ECM Records CD [REVIEW]

By Mike Greenblatt m.greenblatt@classicalite.com | Feb 14, 2016 05:47 PM EST
Bassist/Composer/Professor Michael Formanek (Photo : Claire Stefani)

Even though bassist/composer Michael Formanek's last two ECM CDs -- The Rub and Spare Change (2010) and Small Places (2012) -- were very well-received, neither of them could possibly prepare you for the epic sounds that his Ensemble Kolossus makes on The Distance.

This is big-band craziness run amok. Disregard any notion you may harbor about what a big band can achieve. Despite the fact that Formanek uses his musicians like Ellington used his, we're talking more Sun Ra and Charles Mingus instead of Billy Strayhorn and The Duke. Let's run the cast down: alto sax (2), clarinet (2), bass clarinet, tenor sax (2), flute, baritone sax, trumpet (3), cornet, trombone (3), bass trombone, contrabass trombone, marimba, guitar, piano, acoustic bass and drums, 19 strong, conducted by Mark Helias so composer Formanek can concentrate on his bass playing.

The composer has realized a new way to paint using these instruments as his brushes. The different colors and shades of his imagination take flight so stunningly because these "brushes" are such wildly innovative improvisational masters. Formanek wrote "Exoskeleton," for instance, a multitrack suite that one can totally get lost in, with these particular New York City musicians in mind.

Recorded in Brooklyn, the energy of The Distance positively bristles with a static buzz that should make you sit up and listen even harder. Tim Berne is a monster sax man. Pianist Kris Davis must have 25 fingers. Drummer Tomas Fujiwara probably works harder than anyone else here, constantly switching tempi. And I, for one, am in love with the sound of a bass trombone -- wow.

Michael Formanek was born in 1958 San Francisco and was already the bassist in the Tony Williams Lifetime at 18 before he went on to join the bands of Lee Konitz, Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubband and Stan Getz. He teaches jazz bass and jazz history at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore.

On March 22 and 23 in New York City, Ensemble Kolossus will perform live at The Jazz Standard.

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