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Reviewers: Tony Augarde [Editor], Steve Arloff, Nick Barnard, Pierre Giroux, Don Mather, James Poore, Glyn Pursglove, George Stacy, Bert Thompson, Sam Webster, Jonathan Woolf

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The Distance

ECM 475 9407



  1. The Distance
  2. Exoskeleton Prelude
  3. Exoskeleton
    Part I - Impenetrable
    Part II - Beneath The Shell
    Part III - @heart
  4. Exoskeleton
    Part IV - Echoes
    Part V - Without Regrets
  5. Exoskeleton
    Part VI - Shucking While Jiving
    Part VI - A Reptile Dysfunction
  6. Exoskeleton
    Part VIII - Metamorphic
Loren Stillman, Alto sax, flute
Oscar Noriega - Alto sax, clarinet, bass clarinet
Chris Speed - Tenor sax, clarinet
Brian Settles - Tenor sax, flute
Tim Berne - Baritone sax
Dave Ballou, Ralph Alessi, Shane Endsley - Trumpet
Kirk Knuffke - Cornet
Alan Ferber, Jacob Garchik, Ben Gerstein - Trombone
Jeff Nelson - Bass trombone, contrabass trombone
Patricia Brennan - Marimba
Mary Halvorson - Guitar
Kris Davis - Piano
Michael Formanek - Double bass
Tomas Fujiwara - Drums
Mark Helias - Conductor

Michael Formanek, during a career that began in the mid-1970s, has played and recorded with some of the finest jazz musicians around. The San Francisco-born bass player and jazz educator can include on his CV sessions with Joe Henderson, Art Pepper, Chet Baker, Herbie Mann, Tom Harrell, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Freddie Hubbard, Fred Hersch, Toshiko Akiyoshi's big band, Lee Konitz, Uri Caine and Jane Ira Bloom. He has had a long association with the saxophonist Tim Berne in various groups fronted by one or the other of them (Bloodcount, Wide Open Spaces, Beast Of Nature). This is Formanek's third album as a leader for ECM, the previous two having been recordings by his quartet, also featuring Berne. The Distance, by contrast, brings together an eighteen piece ensemble, conducted by the contra-bassist Mark Helias and playing original material by Formanek. After the opening (and title) track, the rest of this album is taken up by an eight part work entitled Exoskeleton. The Cambridge English Dictionary tells us that an exoskeleton is '' . a hard outer layer that covers, supports and protects the body of an invertebrate animal ''. Good to know! As well as Berne, the ensemble includes other distinguished jazz talents - for instance, trumpeter Ralph Alessi and the gifted sax and clarinet player Oscar Noriega.

The opening track, The Distance, is a stand alone piece and introduces us to this highly listenable group and to some fine ensemble work. The tenor saxophonist, Brian Settles, contributes a sturdy solo. On Exoskeleton Prelude, we find a strong bass intro from Formanek which continues as he is gradually joined by the rest of the band. This is easy enough on the ear, albeit rather downbeat. Pianist Kris Davis chips in, too, but it is drummer Tomas Fujiwara who is most noticeable, creating a wall of sound and then hurtling along to a forceful finale. The third track contains three parts, of which Impenetrable is the most appealing. There are passages suggestive of the overture to West Side Story while Loren Stillman on alto delivers a mazy solo backed by the busy Fujiwara. The group as a whole (watch out for the shrieking brass), as well as Davis on piano, can be heard to good effect. Attentive listening here brought its own rewards. Beneath The Shell presents us with a vital tenor sax solo from Chris Speed and the stylish cornet of Kirk Knuffke, played with pace and feeling. The sax section are exemplary. The third part, @heart, I found a little odd and, I'm guessing, will prove an acquired taste for most listeners.

On the other hand, immediately afterwards, we have Part IV - Echoes which I judge to be the finest piece on the disc by a country mile. Ralph Alessi on trumpet is nothing short of superb - both inventive and technically adept while the admirable Alan Ferber is almost equally fluent on trombone. The ensemble is on top form, too. Part V - Without Regrets allows Mary Halverson on guitar to deliver a searching and lengthy solo. The fifth track contains the intriguingly titled Shucking While Jiving a phrase which is about joking and acting deceptively, usually in the presence of some authority-figure. There's a heavy bass introduction leading to a pronounced riff and ultimately a free for all, complete with squeals and whistles, in which the soloists merge into one another. Part VII - A Reptile Disruption (love the pun!) has Patricia Brennan on the marimba, a Latin American percussion instrument and solos from Oscar Noriega on clarinet as well as Fujiwara on drums and Davis on piano. The final piece, Part VIII - Metamorphic, is a collective improvisation by the full ensemble along the lines of the late Charles Mingus. Formanek on bass and Dave Ballou on trumpet interact well together before the group collectively reach a full head of steam.

For me, there is more of the smack of contemporary music than any other genre about this album. Nevertheless, the jazz flavour is genuinely present and both the musicianship and the standard of composition are admirable.

James Poore

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