CD REVIEW: Michael Formanek Ensemble Kolossus – The Distance

Michael Formanek Ensemble Kolossus – The Distance
(ECM. CD review by Henning Bolte)

To produce and record a 72-minute opus with an ensemble of 19 hand-picked musicians would be a dream for some musicians, and for others a nightmare. It seems that bassist Michael Formanek, originally from Baltimore belongs to the first category, the dream faction.

He even managed to get it recorded for a prestigious label -  which also derives benefit from the enterprise, in that it accrues to its artist list a couple of the highest profile musicians of the present New York/Brooklyn scene. The label which started life as Edition of Contemporary Music has previous form here, having pursued this route before during its illustrious 40-years history. The first one was its fourth release, Marion Brown’s legendary album Afternoon Of A Georgian Faun, recorded with a high-calibre ensemble of ten musicians in 1970. Time and circumstances have changed considerably since then. Whereas Brown’s album had the character of move to pastures new, Formanek’s album, by contrast,  is a dense recapitulation, not so much a single uni-directional leap as a necessary retracing of one of the many paths the bassist has trodden. It can be considered as an attempt to integrate his diverse musical experiences, collaborations and influences on a higher level by means of a large ensemble.

When a solid and potent musician as Michael Formanek gathers a large ensemble of top-notch musicians like this from the New York/Brooklyn scene the expectations are high and the risk of failure is low. The big question then arises: what is the real achievement in between that high and that low?

As the naming of the ensemble already indicates Formanek brings a massive sound  to our ears, It os not massive in the sense of high-decibel electronic roar, but in terms of the palette of sound colours coming out of an impressive armada of wind instruments augmented by two percussion instruments, piano, electric guitar, plus Formanek’s double bass. The wind section comprises four trombones including contrabass trombone, four trumpets and five saxophones alternating with flute and clarinet, and contrabassist Mark Helias conducts the ensemble. It may be the trombone-heaviest album that the ECM label has ever released.

To unlock the kind of rupturing and flow of the musical movements here, the engorging and piling up of crescendos, its fraying margins, its asymptotic backings needs a special strategy. To unleash its eruptive moments, its collisions and peristaltic jerks it needs a special attack and a highly alert collection of musicians which evidently is given her especially concerning the interaction of the pre- structured and the freely shaped parts.

Formanek’s magnum opus consists of the title piece and the five parts of the Exoskeleton opus divided into nine subparts. Remarkably Formanek uses a notably strong image from biology to frame this extended piece. He imagines its unfolding as an inward journey, as a permeation of the carapace to reach out thereby for the viscera and get in touch with essential vital functions. It is the reversal of phylogeny, the evolution of a species/special feature of an organism. Transposed to music, this means working backwards and inwards through the fossilization of styles. It hints to Formanek’s way to gain access to the inner core and energy of musical sediments in order to recycle it vividly. It can be inferred from the titling of the parts of Exoskeleton: Impenetrable – Beneath The Shell - @heart – Echoe – Without Regrets – Shucking While Jiving – A Reptile Dysfunction – Metamorphic. This sequence also reveals it as a gradual process.

From Formanek’s systematics a greater number of remarkable highlights emerge. Part III (Beneath the Shell) has beguiling woodwinds in deep as well as high register. Even a walking bass surfaces here from a remote place. Chris Speed dives into the shades of sepia coloured Ellingtonia and Kirk Knuffke, on cornet, soaks it even irresistibly deeper into a lively living past and Ben Gerstein’s trombone climbs up from extreme depths in the concluding subpart, @heart.

Part IV Echoes and Part V Without Regrets are highly impressive with their balancing of elements and counter-elements in the vamp. Especially outstanding are the contribution of guitarist Mary Halvorson in Part V (Without Regrets) as well as the contribution of pianist Kris Davis in Part VII (Reptile Dysfunction) followed by an amazing clarinet contribution of Oscar Noriega. The concluding section of the piece Part VIII (Metamorphic), with its frenetic Schlussgesang apotheosis also delights with an unusual interplay of Formanek’s bass and Dave Ballou’s trumpet. The listing could easily be continued...but you'd do better to listen for yourself!

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