Michael Formanek Quartet at The Stone 5/5/18 (by Noah Berman)

PERSONNEL: Michael Formanek (bass), Ralph Alessi (trumpet), Tim Berne (alto saxophone), Ches Smith (drums, percussion)

SET LIST: A Fine Mess, Wobble and Spill, The Soul Goodbye (all by Formanek)

HIGHLIGHTS: The loud “THWACK” from Smith that marked the end of “A Fine Mess” was followed by such an efficient and seamless transition to “Wobble and Spill” that the first half of the concert felt like a long, multi-movement suite.

Closing his residency at The Stone, Michael Formanek assembled a new quartet lineup to present three compositions. Various subsets of the band have previously played together in working groups such as Berne’s Bloodcount and Snakeoil, the Drew Gress Quintet, and the Anthony Pirog Trio. This existing familiarity enabled the musicians to prioritize interaction and conversation over a more conventional soloist/accompanist dynamic, resulting in an open, evolving soundscape that highlighted the musicians near-telepathic improvising abilities.

Formanek began “A Fine Mess” with the only unaccompanied statement of the night. His kinetic playing set the stage for the next 30 minutes of music, which found the group improvising their way through two of his compositions. For the most part, these improvisations were trios featuring Formanek, Smith, and either Alessi or Berne, which were connected with full quartet moments. Smith used a range of devices to delineate sections and create movement, such as switching between sticks, mallets, and brushes, zeroing in on small subsets of his drum set, and playing a contrasting pulse in relation to Formanek. Following the seamless transition into “Wobble and Spill,” Alessi and Berne improvised as a duo, matching each others changes in register and density. Throughout the set, motivic development was a key factor in shaping the group sound.

“The Soul Goodbye” was focused on drone, space, and duo improvisations. Beginning with Formanek and Berne, a long crossfade gave way to a duet between Alessi and Smith on short, high percussive sounds. Formanek’s re-entry led to a rhythm section feature, with Smith switching to cymbals. The theme emerged following a droning crescendo, a short, noir-ish earworm that had members of the audience humming to themselves after the performance.

by Noah Berman