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Avoiding the Obvious: Michael Formanek’s Elusion Quartet in Northampton

It is no mean achievement to produce music that has distinct contours yet retains a looseness that speaks of freedom. Michael Formanek, who brought his Elusion Quartet to the Arts Trust Building in Northampton on May 18, writes sturdy compositions that have texture and lots of room for improvising.


The ensemble: Tony Malaby, tenor and soprano saxophone, Kris Davis, piano, and Ches Smith, drums and vibraphone, are all master musicians who seemed quite at home with the leader’s slow, unfurling lines. In February, 2018, they played one gig, then recorded Time Like This on Intakt Records. Fifteen months later they reconvened for a delayed CD release tour that took them to the UK and then New Haven, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and little old Northampton.


This all-star quartet is the second Formanek has formed in recent years. In the early part of the decade his group with Tim Berne, Craig Taborn and Gerald Cleaver produced two highly regarded ECM recordings. The music made by the Elusion Quartet is more open than his earlier efforts; it was elusive and chamber-like, and rarely settled into strict meter. Most pieces ruminated in subdued free time, before gaining intensity and structure.


Formanek was born in San Francisco and was 18 years old when he appeared on The Bishop, a 1976 Theresa Records release led by saxophonist Norman Williams. The pianist on the date was Valley stand out Paul Arslanian, who also did A&R work for the Bay Area label. They got a chance to reconnect during the post-concert reception that followed the Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares event. The bassist was the very definition of precocious; he was touring with Tony Williams and Joe Henderson while still a teenager, and spent his twenties playing long stints with Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Fred Hersch, and Freddie Hubbard.


It’s always exciting to hear Tony Malaby, whose most recent visits to the area were with Daniel Levin’s Trio and Harris Eisenstadt’s Old Growth Forest. The Eisenstadt hit on June 11, 2017 at the Parlor Room, has just been released on Astral Spirits (http://www.harriseisenstadt.com/albums/old-growth-ii/). His tone on tenor has a singing quality that, on “A Fine Mess” and elsewhere, served the music beautifully. His extended soprano duet with Kris Davis, which opened “This May Get Ugly” was an expressive, highly animated conversation and one of many highlights.


I have wanted to invite Kris Davis to our area for some time. She was voted Downbeat’s 2017 Rising Star on piano, has released 10 records, won multiple high-profile grants and garnered lots of well-deserved praise. I wished she had gotten a little more solo space on Saturday, but then again, the music was not built around solos and heads. The shifting combination of instruments gave her a chance to shine, which she did brightly. She’ll be heading to Boston in the fall to begin teaching at Berklee. That might make it easier to get her to the Valley.


Like his bandmates, percussionist Ches Smith is very much in demand. In the last 10 years he has amassed a crazy number of recording and performance credits with Tim Berne, John Zorn, Mary Halvorson, Marc Ribot, Dave Holland, Darius Jones, and Jason Robinson. His first ECM recording as a leader, The Bell (2016), included Craig Taborn and Mat Maneri. He easily read down tricky written parts and propelled the band without getting locked into specific tempos. His dynamics were spot on, which was critical since the concert was played without sound reinforcement. Although he only got one extended solo on vibes, it confirmed his originality on that instrument, as well.


Formanek is perfectly positioned to add to an already vibrant career. He recently retired from full time teaching duties at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and moved to New York. His easy-going bandleading style, large, welcoming sound on bass, and demanding, but accessible compositions make him a magnet for forward thinking musicians.

Marty Ehrlich, extraordinary reed player, music scholar, storyteller and friend, returned to the Connecticut River Valley on December 16 to perform with his trio at the Blue Room in Easthampton, MA. T

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