Baltimore-based bassist and composer Michael Formanek has a concise but impressive list of recordings as a leader, including Rub and Spare Change (2010) and Small Places (2012) on ECM, and a very impressive list of recordings as a sideman. He was most recently mentioned on the blog with the group Thumbscrew, with guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, who also are a part this powerful big band recording from early 2016. The Distance is not only a new notch in the bassist's discography, but an incredible showcase for his compositional prowess, and a sumptuous listening experience for the rest of us.
This review is nearly a year late - The Distance was released around this time in 2016. As winter turned to spring, summer, and fall, it continued to 'ripen' on my harddrive. When I finally cleared away all the other music to give the Ensemble Kolossus due listening, it somehow was winter again. While I kick myself for waiting so long, I can only say the music is timeless. This album is a gorgeous big band recording that embraces a sound that only a large ensemble can bring to life with its orchestral voicings, imaginative solos, unusual song structures and clever references to the big band genre.
The album begins with the unhurried title track. Formanek displays the rudiments of his sound - long flowing chords that move gracefully from phrase to phrase. There are few individual voices here to start, instead, we hear a flowing and dramatic melody delivered by the ensemble (see a list of all participants below). A lovely saxophone solo emerges from the soothing waves and then is subsumed again. Next, we move into the 'Exoskeleton' suite ...
The piano takes the lead spot in 'Exoskeleton (parts VI - VII)'. The ocean has grown choppy, too. The accompaniment comes in short urgent bursts, and soon the clarinet moves into the solo spot, dropping in quick melodic lines. The final movement, 'Exoskeleton (part VIII)' is a short but effective summation of the suite. Its start is almost chaotic, the many voices in the group playing freely, but they're power is soon directed into an intense swirl of color and texture.
Formanek's The Distance is a delight, so easy to get caught up in and swept away. It begins with a deceptive gentle swell but the undertow will drag you into its heaving and churning depths.
The Kollosus Ensemble:
- Saxophones/Woodwinds: Loren Stillman (alto saxophone); Oscar Noriega (alto sax/ clarinet, bass clarinet); Chris Speed (tenor sax, clarinet); Brian Settles (tenor sax, flute); Tim Berne (baritone sax)
- Trumpets: Dave Ballou, Ralph Alessi, Shane Endsley, Kirk Knuffke (cornet)
- Trombones: Alan Ferber, Jacob Garchik, Ben Gerstein, Jeff Nelson (bass trombone, contrabass trombone)
- Marimba: Patricia Franceschy
- Guitar: Mary Halvorson
- Piano: Kris Davis
- Double-bass: Michael Formanek
- Drums: Tomas Fujiwara
- Conductor: Mark Helias