Part of what makes jazz such an endlessly renewable form is its mutability. Compositionally, instrumentally, and improvisationally, jazz has no fixed center. From solo piano to a full jazz orchestra with strings, the configuration and number of instruments and players is limited only by logistics and imagination. However, there was a time when the big band was the popular face of jazz, with the likes of Glenn Miller, Stan Kenton, and Doc Severinsen arranging both standards and original songs for medium to large ensembles that played up showmanship while simultaneously toning down some of the music’s more exploratory tendencies.
More than a half-century (if we’re being generous) has lapsed since that heyday, and if you ask most people today to envision a jazz performance, there’s a good chance they’ll picture a small combo in a cramped club. Michael Formanek, the double-bassist, composer, and music educator, has put together a group that tweaks that tidy narrative for The Distance, his new album on ECM. (Get it from Amazon.) Recording as Ensemble Kolossus, Formanek’s group is unapologetically a big band. Guitar and marimba augment the standard three-piece rhythm section of piano, bass, and drums, and the horn section features five saxophones (with some of the players sitting in on clarinet and flute as well), three trumpets and a cornet, and four trombones.
The temptation, when reviewing a genuine big band recording in 2016, is to overpraise it for its rarity, rather than to approach it honestly. Thankfully, The Distance is a superlative album not only because of its refreshing configuration of musicians, but because it merges a modern compositional style with a rich history of big band sounds that nevertheless privileges deep improvisation. The great accomplishment of Ensemble Kolossus is that the album’s many moving pieces coalesce into a restless, inventive whole.
Many of the players Formanek recruited are fixtures of the New York jazz scene and have collaborated previously; some relationships go back decades. Notably, drummer Tomas Fujiwara and guitarist Mary Halvorson have worked with Formanek in a knotty trio format as Thumbscrew, and saxophonist Tim Berne is a long-time collaborator who played in Formanek’s quartet on his two previous ECM albums, The Rub and Spare Change and Small Places. These existing creative relationships, when coupled with the full-bore volume of the group, makes the Ensemble seem like a comfortable—if structured and disciplined—studio jam session of friends. In retrospect, Formanek’s “Tonal Suite” from The Rub and Spare Change previews many of the compositional techniques that are displayed throughout The Distance as well.
Although The Distance is a sprawling, occasionally intimidating album at 70+ minutes, its structure is smartly designed to draw the listener in. The title track opens the album in classic ECM greyscale, with brushstrokes on a loose snare and sparse piano chords suggesting a noir aesthetic. The piano picks out a melody in octaves that the reeds follow throughout in a wispy haze that keeps threatening to almost resolve into “Moonlight Serenade.” As the album unfolds, however, that gauzy haze of an atmosphere seems more like a sly opening feint, because nothing quite revisits that mood. The remainder of the album is taken up by an hour-long piece called “Exoskeleton” (presented in a prelude and eight subsequent sections).
“Exoskeleton (Prelude)” finds the ensemble slowly gathering steam, and allows Formanek himself to point the way more directly, first with a leading bass solo, and then with solos from the other two principal rhythm players, pianist Kris Davis and drummer Fujiwara. Thus, while it’s not until the very end (“Part VIII – Metamorphic”) that the ensemble turns in a full collective improvisation, the album feels like it has been building smartly to that conclusion.
The contrapuntal fugue that takes over the end of “Exoskeleton (Prelude),” with Halvorson’s guitar offset from the trumpet and sax line, is a fine example of the meticulousness of Formanek’s arrangements. “Part I – Impenetrable” is structured around a great full ensemble staccato hook that gives way to a Latin-inflected swing somewhat reminiscent of a thoroughly modernist Maynard Ferguson band. Elsewhere, the main theme in “Part VII – A Reptile Dysfunction” is a wonderfully spooky descending run twinned by Patricia Brennan’s marimba and Oscar Noriega’s clarinet. Depending on the listener, The Distance may recall any number of notable larger-scale jazz touchstones, from Miles Davis‘s collaborations with Gil Evans (Miles Ahead, Sketches of Spain) to Ornette Coleman‘s double-combo configuration on Free Jazz, and even the gospel-swing schmaltz of Kamasi Washington‘s recent take on “Clair de Lune.”
However, because of its bassist-as-leader genesis and the horn-heavy blare it embraces, one of the most natural points of comparison might be Charles Mingus‘s The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. But whereas the Mingus album moved forward with a constantly kinetic, ballet-like movement, Ensemble Kolossus is less interested in the narrative possibilities of a large ensemble. One of the benefits of the big band format here is that with so many players involved, the ensemble can work in strong, tonally colorful unison while other players offer supporting texture in a way that wouldn’t necessarily be possible in a small combo. The marimba work of Patricia Brennan, for example, often plays that role on The Distance, filling in the sound’s low end with the instrument’s rich resonance.
Still, despite the relative absence of fully free improvisation, there are plenty of excursions into wilder terrain. “Part V – Without Regrets” pares down the ensemble to the three-piece of Formanek, Halvorson, and Fujiwara for a Halvorson solo that sounds of a piece with the trio’s work as Thumbscrew. And while “Part VI – Shucking While Jiving” keeps a mostly steady theme with Formanek and Davis’s swaggering theme, the brass and reed solos fly in free, overlapping outbursts.
Even when the band settles into standard fare, there’s usually some unexpected flourish lurking, as on “Part II – Beneath the Shell,” where Formanek provides a walking bass line against a laid-back swing beat for Kirk Knuffke’s cornet solo, while Mary Halvorson’s guitar sits back in the mix and tags in with squiggling stabs. Formanek still has a sizable classicist streak, however, and his melodic lines are long and complex, but elegant in a way occasionally reminiscent of Oliver Nelson (see the opening of “Part IV – Echoes”).
“Part VIII – Metamorphic” is billed as a collective improvisation. It opens with Halvorson playing through some spindly delay and Formanek breaking out his bow, and offers several miraculous moments (the best of which is likely Formanek and trumpeter Dave Ballou waltzing around one another during Ballou’s solo), although when the piece eventually coalesces into a surging 5/4 for its last minutes, it’s hard to imagine Formanek didn’t at least have a decent skeleton of it workshopped beforehand.
If jazz is endlessly mutable, then it should (in theory) be less susceptible to bold proclamations from insulated critics about its future, or the rebirth of this, or the death of that. Every music scene will always have its worriers and its armchair philosophers, but jazz is particularly well-equipped to truck along just fine, so long as there are people compelled to pick up instruments and see what new sounds they can make with old tools. Michael Formanek hardly seems interested in resurrecting any particular moment in jazz history or leading a big band renaissance with Ensemble Kolossus, and nor should he be. The Distance is a wonderful album that respects the past while also thumbing its nose at any stuffed shirts who think respecting the past is all that important. And even better, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.