It was near impossible to mistake the heft of Michael Formanek’s Ensemble Kolossus when it played at New York’s Winter JazzFest in mid-January. The shape of the music, the locomotion it accrued, the density calculated for each discrete section – together they defined the bearing of this new(ish) outfit as it worked its way through the leader’s “Exoskeleton” suite. Each element, from the churning glide of the rhythm section to the punchy bray of the brass and reeds, was essential to the performance. One of the annual gathering’s most imposing, potent and varied, I’ll happily add.
Anyone who has followed the bassist’s work could probably guess that he’d be inspired by helming a big band. His first forays as a leader, a string of ‘90s discs for the Enja label, relied on the agility of quintets, but Formanek arranged his pieces so that sections shifted and instruments could play more than one role. The charts were fluid, and always a little meatier than they might’ve seemed on paper. The interwoven lines of “Thick Skin/Dangerous Crustaceans” from ‘97s Nature Of The Beast was a spotlight on the future: things are going to get a bit more elaborate. By the time Formanek truly refined the approach on 2014’s Small Places, he had a foursome of Craig Taborn, Tim Berne and Gerald Cleaver bringing orchestral implications on protracted pieces such as “Parting Ways” and “Seeds and Birdman.” Dude was in the construction business and he dug having his skyscrapers jut up into the clouds.
Small Places (as well as its predecessor The Rub and Spare Change) earned plenty of critical cred – that must’ve helped when it came for ECM to green-light The Distance. It’s not every composer who gets to trot an 18-piece band into the studio in this budget-sensitive era. Smart move by the label, which of late has broadened its reach when it comes to presenting US musicians, especially those of the Brooklyn variety. Formanek is a Baltimore man these days, and his latest opus is by turns raucous, sleek, ornery, clever, joyous, pensive and confrontational. The nine-part “Exoskeleton” lasts over an hour, a near cinematic salute to several stages of evolution. An epic tone poem regarding our collective crawl towards civilization? To some degree Formanek extends the canon that Charles Mingus kicked off with the girth and combustion of “Pithecanthropus Erectus” – surely one of Team Kolossus’ more resonant ancestors.
Grace is at the center of the way the program unfolds. The bassist’s poised solo against the eerie coo of reeds during the prelude, the cracking punch of the band behind saxophonist Loren Stillman’s lyrical caw during “Impenetrable,” the gentle agitation of both trombonist Alan Ferber and guitarist Mary Halvorson as “Echoes” turns into “Without Regrets” – the inner balance of these episodes, and the emotional logic that bridges them, is just as engaging as the particulars of the playing itself. A rainbow of hues crops up along the way; Formanek’s decision to go big only enhances the tiny flash points that carry their own unique personalities. There’s a buzzy bari and bass clarinet combo at the tail end of the prelude, a marimba-flavored pulse pumping blood to trombonist Ben Gerstein’s sputtering poesy in “@heart,” and a Bernard Herrmann echo that flares up during the kick off of “Echoes.” Each fleeting, each memorable. Conductor Mark Helias, himself a heralded bassist, binds all these micro events in to a series of smooth transitions, one of the performance’s fortes. Moments of fluctuation abound, but Helias’ organizing skills corral any overly wayward notions.
Formanek’s charts deserve such TLC; he’s written a handful of themes that grow more enticing with each go-round. “Echoes” swerves sideways and chases its own tail. “Shucking While Jiving” integrates two threads a with a hypnotic vamp, and “Beneath The Shell” moves from a bluesy swag into an ethereal sputtering of ideas – you get the feeling that the bassist is looking into a carnival mirror as a way to examine his own growth. The album’s title cut – which opens the disc and is only non-“Exoskeleton” track – is an irresistible bit of grandeur that comes off as an aging romantic doing an evening’s worth of reflection. Formanek is a graying baby boomer with big chunk of accumulated wisdom under his belt (he currently teaches at Peabody Conservatory), and there’s a chance that he has never sounded so fully in control of his capabilities as he does here. Like Carla Bley’s maneuvers with her Social Studies ensemble, Henry Threadgill during his days leading Very Very Circus, or Mingus himself guiding the majestic punch of Let My Children Hear Music, Formanek sets his tumultuous squad on a mission: finding ways to balance overtly daring ideas with a good dose of old school beauty. With almost every turn, and there are many of them, he succeeds in spades.