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Bass Heavy

The bottom end takes center stage in three local shows

Whether in a rock band or a jazz combo, the bass is an almost subliminal instrument, more often felt than heard. Working at the bottom of the sonic range, it is easily eclipsed by melodic horns, keyboards or guitars, and yet its pulse is crucial. The bass, after all, is the bridge between the percussion and the tempered instruments, marrying a definite pitch to the beat of the drums. The idea of a bassist as a bandleader often seems odd to the average listener, who assumes the instrument provides only a supporting role, but it makes perfect sense to other musicians, who are accustomed to taking their cues from the bassist. It’s not so strange that two of the most important jazz composer/bandleaders of the past 50 years have been Charles Mingus and Dave Holland, both bassists.

As it so happens, three jazz-bassist bandleaders bring their own bands and their own new albums to Maryland this fall. Miles Davis collaborator Marcus Miller brought his jazz-funk album Renaissance to Ram’s Head On Stage Thursday. September 20th. The 25-year-old Atlanta bassist Michael Feinberg brings his new tribute album The Elvin Jones Project to An Die Musik Friday. September 21st. And Towson resident Michael Formanek brings the quartet on his new ECM release Small Places to the Wind-Up Space October 6. All three leaders have surrounded themselves with top-flight soloists—guitarist Adam Rogers on Miller’s disc, trumpeter Tim Hagans on Feinberg’s and saxophonist Tim Berne on Formanek’s—but in each case the bassist is able to impose his own personality on the proceedings.

Formanek has been a major presence on the Maryland jazz scene ever since the California native and longtime New Yorker was hired to teach at Peabody in 2001. Though he had released several well regarded small-label albums under his own name, his real breakthrough as a bandleader came in 2010, when the legendary German label ECM agreed to release Formanek’s already recorded The Rub and Spare Change. It was also the first time the bassist had assembled three of his favorite musicians—Berne, pianist Craig Taborn and drummer Gerald Cleaver—in one place to become his new quartet. It was a remarkable record, a model for how to blend preconceived composition and spontaneous improvisation, but the sequel, Small Places, recorded with the same players is even better.

This time ECM founder Manfred Eicher worked as producer with the quartet in the studio and achieved the sparkling clarity that he’s famous for. Having played enough gigs together that the feeling-out process is long over, the quartet now radiates that paradoxical combination of relaxation and focus that athletes call “being in the zone.” Formanek takes a handful of impressive solos—most notably the muscular plucking on “Rising Tensions And Awesome Light” and the lustrous bowed intro to “Soft Reality”—but no more than you’d find on a typical quartet date led by a pianist. No, Formanek makes himself felt through his compositions—he wrote all eight pieces himself—which provide not only emotionally fraught melodies but also multiple themes per tune.

Thus the quartet never falls into the tired formula of head-solo-solo-solo-head. Instead a tune like “Pong” goes sax/bass duet, sax/piano duet, sax/drums duet, piano/drums duet, sax/bass duet, sax/piano duet. All four musicians are playing throughout this sequence of give-and-take dialogues, but Formanek’s arrangement dictates which two step into the foreground and which two recede into the background at any given moment. This approach of instrumental storytelling chapter by chapter is even more obvious on the two epic pieces: the 12-minute “Seeds and Birdman” and the 18-minute “Parting Ways.” As the title implies, the latter is a melancholy tune about separation; the unresolved, minor-key changes and shifting time signatures capture that pang of a loved one’s absence, especially on Taborn’s piano-ballad solo early on. The volume and mood keep descending till almost all that can be heard are Formanek’s bowed night-bird cries and Cleaver’s rumbling toms. But then Berne’s alto sax introduces a tone of hopeful yearning, and the piece climbs back out of the darkness into the light—though not without some slippage and recovery along the way.

Formanek recorded with tenor saxophonist George Garzone on Judi Silvano’s 2008 album Cleome and subsequent performance at An Die Musik. Garzone strikes similar sparks with a much younger bassist, Feinberg, on the latter’s third album as a leader, The Elvin Jones Project. Garzone and Feinberg co-produced the sessions, which explore drummer Jones’ music. Naturally enough, Feinberg is most interested in the interplay between Jones and the many bassists he worked with—most notably Jimmy Garrison from the early ‘60s John Coltrane Quartet, Gene Perla from Jones’ 1971-72 fusion bands with Dave Liebman and George Mraz from Jones’ 1982 acoustic quintet, also with Liebman. Filling the Coltrane and Liebman roles is Garzone; filling the Jones role is the 71-year-old Billy Hart, Jones’ protégé and close friend.

Feinberg is able to keep up in such heady company, because his bass lines boast such juicy tone, such forceful propulsion and such surprising tangents. On the Coltrane composition “Miles Mode,” Feinberg’s impatient throb seems to goad Garzone into an impolite, uncalculated solo, but the bulk of the album is less interested in Jones’ explosive side than in his sensitive ballad playing. Feinberg bows the lovely melody on Jimmy Van Heusen’s “Nancy with the Laughing Face” from Coltrane’s Ballads album and uses a bass ostinato and Fender Rhodes to establish the late-night mood of Liebman’s title composition from Jones’ Earth Jones album.

Feinberg rearranged “Taurus People” and “The Unknighted Nations” from Jones’ Live at the Lighthouse album, to give them the storytelling expansiveness of Formanek’s new release. Feinberg’s only composition on The Elvin Jones Project is “It Is Written,” inspired by 2001’s Bill Frisell with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones, with guest guitarist Alex Wintz reinforcing the Frisell-like reverie. Leo Genovese, the keyboardist on The Elvin Jones Project, will join Feinberg at An Die Musik with saxophonist Dayna Stephens and drummer Gregory Hutchinson.

Miller is more than just a virtuoso jazz-fusion bassist in the style of Jaco Pastorius; he has also worked as composer/producer on three of Miles Davis’s late albums as well as on the biggest hits by the great Luther Vandross and David Sanborn. This ability to work both sides of the jazz/R&B fence gives Miller a valuable versatility, but it also tempts him into churning out skillful but forgettable radio fodder. Unlike Formanek, Miller too often makes the mistake of pushing his own instrument to the foreground on the new album Renaissance, asking the listener to sit through one bass solo after another. The bass is capable of many invaluable roles, but serving as the primary melodic instrument is not one of them.

Miller is at his best when he’s complementing an instrument as gorgeously toned as Davis’s trumpet, Vandross’s baritone or Sanborn’s alto sax. Miller’s buzzing, slapped bass is not their equal, and he is much better off when he recruits someone else as the lead voice on a tune, especially when that tune is a standard. The highlights of his new album occur when Ruben Blades and Gretchen Parlato sing on Ivan Lins’ “Setembro (Brazilian Wedding Song),” when alto saxophonist Alex Han solos on jazz composer Weldon Irvine’s funky “Mr. Clean” and when Dr. John sings on Janelle Monae’s even funkier “Tightrope.” If the Formanek and Feinberg albums demonstrate the possibilities for a bassist bandleader, Miller’s demarcates the limitations.

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