Even with decades of experience to his credit, bassist-composer Michael Formanek has made some of his keenest creative leaps in recent years, documented on a sequence of justly lauded albums: two ECM quartet releases (Small Places and The Rub and Spare Change, with saxophonist Tim Berne, pianist Craig Taborn and drummer Gerald Cleaver); another disc on ECM, The Distance, which showcased his all-star Ensemble Kolossus big band; and his Intakt debut of 2018, Time Like This, featuring his excellent new Elusion Quartet with saxophonist Tony Malaby, pianist Kris Davis and drummer/vibraphonist Ches Smith. Formanek’s latest Intakt release, Even Better, presents for the first time on record his Very Practical Trio, which sets him alongside the altoist Berne (a kindred spirit since the ’90s) and electric guitarist Mary Halvorson (with whom the bassist plays in Thumbscrew, among other groups).
The Very Practical Trio’s name cuts two ways, as Formanek explains: “The instrumentation is practical, in that it’s just the three of us and there aren’t any drums. The band travels well in every sense, in that we’re good friends and perform a lot with each other, in various bands. The three of us fit together, personally and musically. We can naturally shift the roles we play in the music, so it’s not always just sticking to a traditional lead voice, harmonic voice and bass. I like to challenge Tim and Mary in the writing, and I always trust that they will maximize the implications of the music – and surprise me with where they take it. They’re incredibly serious musicians, yet they’re not self-important people at all. We laugh a lot and have great conversations at dinner that continue onto the bandstand in a different way. But as far as the band’s name, there’s also a sardonic element to it in that hardly anything is that practical in jazz these days – in fact, it’s the opposite. You make this music out of the love of it, out of the pursuit of something that you hope is beautiful and unique, that reaches people.”
To that end, Even Better conveys Formanek’s special sense of instrumental song. “It may not be what comes to mind for some people when you say the word ‘song,’ but it’s a personal idea of song for me,” he explains. “I conceived the compositions as cohesive, song-like structures, with a lyrical quality – not just head/solo/head in the usual jazz way. The pieces aren’t overly arranged, but the improvisations do spin out of the material of the songs and then go back into it. I think this record really brings out the tuneful nature in everyone’s playing.” The album indeed courses with an insinuating lyricism, along with a snaking metrical pulse and a surprising textural richness given just three players. One highlight is “Like Statues” – listen for the pealing hooks in Halvorson’s solo, Berne’s soulful melodic tracery throughout and the way Formanek’s bass punches through with just the right ear-tugging notes. The leader’s spring-loaded dynamism is evident across the album (check out his solo off the asymmetrical grooves of “Implausible Deniability”), as are Berne’s tonal piquancy and famous rhythmic drive (with “The Shifter” a prime example). Halvorson generates colors and shapes like a kaleidoscope, with “Bomb the Cactus” featuring not only her characteristic spidery runs and woozy phasing effects but also catchy, rock-like strumming.
The ruminative lament “Shattered” – which Formanek composed just after the 2018 mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh – underscores the dramatic possibilities of the trio’s ensemble sound, as the band taps a well of deep feeling within the minor-key melody. The three players also mine all the songful beauty of the album’s lone non-Formanek composition: “Jade Visions” by the tragically short-lived Scott LaFaro, bassist of the original Bill Evans Trio (with LaFaro’s piece appearing on the group’s iconic Sunday at the Village Vanguard LP). The arrangement is ravishing, with Halvorson’s atmospheric shimmer conjuring emerald hues. Berne’s quiet playing is fully sensitive to the melody, while Formanek has his own way with the tolling bass undertow. “I loved ‘Jade Visions’ from the time I first heard it on that Vanguard record,” he says. “It might sound like a simple ballad, but it was pretty advanced for the late ’50s/early ’60s, the way those beats are grouped. While we were on tour before going into the studio, it dawned on me that the piece might be ideal for the instrumentation of this trio. It’s an open, mysterious thing, and we tried to bring out a kind of Twin Peaks vibe with the spaciousness of it.”
Reflecting on the best way to experience Even Better, Formanek hopes that at least some audients “will listen to the album on a CD player, with uncompressed sound and in the intended order, even uninterrupted,” he says. “It’s not necessarily the way of the world today, but I still like the idea of an album as a cumulative experience, as if it were a novel or a film. I know it sounds idealistic – and not very practical!” — Bradley Bambarger