New jazz albums showcase some heady contemporary talent with local ties
Published: October 20, 2010
Since Michael Formanek moved to Maryland in 2003 to take a full-time teaching position in the Peabody Institute’s jazz department, the bear-like bassist has been a regular presence in Baltimore’s jazz venues. He quickly proved himself a fascinating composer and a fearless improviser, a musician who raised the game of everyone around him. None of this music, however, was documented, because Formanek hadn’t released an album under his own name since 1998. He claimed that he was staying away from the studio until he had his new teaching gig under control, but it was frustrating to hear all this terrific music in the clubs and then have it evaporate into thin air.
So it’s welcome news that Formanek is not only releasing a new album this month but is releasing it on one of the world’s top jazz labels: Germany’s ECM Records. The disc, The Rub and Spare Change, doesn’t feature one of Formanek’s Maryland bands but rather a group of his old New York friends—alto saxophonist Tim Berne, pianist Craig Taborn, and drummer Gerald Cleaver—who have all played with the bassist on Baltimore stages. The quartet showcases the impressive new album at An die Musik Oct. 29.
The Rub and Spare Change features six Formanek compositions that renegotiate the give-and-take between notated and improvised music in jazz. At its best, jazz works as a kind of democratic collaboration, where all musicians contribute musical ideas and respond to their colleagues’ ideas. A bandleader who is too controlling can stifle the flow, but a bandleader who is too passive can allow the interaction between ideas to wither with too many disconnected individual statements.
Formanek finds the sweet spot in between. He doesn’t determine the entire piece, as a classical composer or big-band arranger would, but neither does he offer one theme and then allow his soloists to go wherever they will. Instead, he offers several as guideposts through each tune and allows his musicians to travel from post to post as they think best. Because the improvisers share a starting point and several interval points before the ending, they tend to stay in contact with one another along the journey. Rather than one person soloing while the other three hang back in support, all four musicians are constantly improvising, alternating who takes the foreground, but all of them always prodding and responding. And because Formanek is a bassist who thinks rhythmically, this give-and-take is as much about divisions of time as it is about pitches of notes.
The title track, for example, begins with a Monkish theme that develops a stutter step, knocked out by Cleaver but adopted in various ways by everyone. About halfway through the nine-minute piece, a dreamy piano motif commands the foreground, even though Cleaver is still rattling in the background. Berne picks up Taborn’s reverie and starts murmuring along with it, but the sax grows increasingly agitated until it’s wailing like a siren over Taborn’s broken chords before subsiding again. It’s a joint journey for all four musicians, and it holds together only because Formanek has provided a good map. But the journey is more satisfying because the composer has allowed for so many scenic detours.
Formanek is also the bassist on a new album credited to two more Maryland musicians, saxophonist Carl Grubbs and pianist Lafayette Gilchrist. Maryland Traditions in Jazz takes its title from a program sponsored by the Maryland State Arts Council that pairs young, developing artists with older, established masters—not just in jazz but also in folk-culture fields ranging from Irish accordionists to Eastern Shore muskrat skinners. Gilchrist studied with Grubbs (who has recorded with Stanley Clarke, Julius Hemphill, and Kenny Barron) from 2007-2008. They performed the music they had worked on at An die Musik in 2009, and a recording of that show was released this year.
Because the emphasis was on Maryland’s own jazz history, the set list includes compositions by locals such as pianist Eubie Blake, singer Billie Holiday, drummer Chick Webb, and Grubbs himself. The results are about what you’d expect when four talented musicians (Eric Allen is the drummer) who don’t work together regularly tackle some familiar standards: There are a few rough patches (especially with intonation), but there are plenty of bravura moments too. What you mostly hear are the three bandleaders feeling relaxed, liberated from the challenge of inventing new music, and enjoying a romp through the past.
One of Formanek’s colleagues at Peabody is voice teacher Jay Clayton, who commutes from New York. Clayton—who has recorded with Steve Reich, Charlie Haden, John Cage, and Muhal Richard Abrams—has just released a solo album on Sunnyside Records, In and Out of Love. “Although I am primarily known as an avant-garde singer (kind of outdated term but it works),” she writes in the liner notes, “I love the jazz standards.” She recorded the new album at the same time she cut her 2008 disc, The Peace of Wild Things, a truly experimental project that had her inventing melodies for the poetry of e.e. cummings (among others) with no accompaniment but her own voice and manipulated electronics. Just as the tunefulness of jazz standards informed that effort, so does the experimental spirit of The Peace of Wild Things influence the approach of In and Out of Love.
On the new album, Clayton’s supple soprano is backed only by guitarist Jack Wilkins and bassist Jay Anderson. This wide open soundscape forces the singer to act as much as a horn player as an interpreter of lyrics. In fact, Clayton sings Eddie Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance” entirely in scat syllables—and she doesn’t just follow the original melody but bends it and twists it into knots. She adds a percussive snap to the front edge of these syllables, making her sound as much like a vibraphone as a horn. Several other songs, such as Kenny Barron’s “Sunshower” and John Carisi’s “Israel,” were instrumentals before words were added, and Clayton’s vocal approach is instrumental first and textual second. But even on standards as familiar as Irving Berlin’s “How Deep is the Ocean” or Rodgers and Hart’s “Falling in Love with Love,” Clayton takes welcome liberties.
The most prominent Maryland jazz musician (with the possible exception of Gary Bartz) over the past two decades has been Cyrus Chestnut, who released a series of brilliant gospel-flavored jazz piano albums for Atlantic Records in the mid-’90s. Since then most of his releases have been high-concept projects—a Latin jazz outing, tributes to Elvis Presley and Pavement, a Christmas disc, a pair of hymn collections—all of them quite likable but most of them constrained by their concept. So it’s a pleasure to learn that Chestnut’s new album for Jazz Legacy Productions, Journeys, returns to the format of those Atlantic masterpieces: the pianist leading his road trio through a set of original compositions. The result is his best album since 2001’s Soul Food.
Chestnut opens the album with “Smitty’s Joint,” a blistering hard-bop number that proves just how melodic and precise he can be at even the fastest tempos—and bassist Dezron Douglas and drummer Neal Smith have learned how to stay right there with the leader. “Little Jon” boasts a jaunty, Monkish theme that should seduce lots of pianists into playing it, while “New Light” surrounds its arresting center with a post-bop agitation. But Chestnut doesn’t have to play fast to impress; romantic ballads such as “Eyes of an Angel” and the title track generate a rhythmic tension even at slower tempos while they unleash a flood of feeling through harmonies that turn stretching into yearning. Something similar happens on the two slow hymns, both instrumental originals, that close the disc with a meditative yet intense prayerfulness. ■
Lafayette Gilchrist and the New Volcanoes are joined by Carl Filipiak for a free concert at the Towson University Center for the Arts Oct. 24 at 3 p.m. Michael Formanek, Tim Berne, Craig Taborn, and Gerald Cleaver play An Die Musik Oct. 29. Cyrus Chestnut performs at the Kennedy Center Jazz Club Nov. 19.