Michael Formanek’s One-Man Jazz Revival
All these events shared a common denominator. When the Peabody Jazz Orchestra horns rose in counterpointed shouts behind Rivers’ saxophone, for example, the orchestra’s conductor was Michael Formanek, who had organized the evening. When Rivers played his signature piece, “Beatrice,” the guest bassist was Formanek, whose burly bearishness contrasted with the composer’s foxlike wiriness. The Minor Infractions Ensemble, also organized by Formanek, devoted its first set to his arrangements and the second to his compositions. There was Formanek again, with his salt-and-pepper goatee and diving bass lines, behind Ehrlich, Arguelles, Sullivan, Jordan, and Clayton. And when Elvis Costello played Rams Head Live in April, Formanek was in the audience, checking up on the singer the bassist had backed on the 2003 North album.
Formanek, 47, has had a huge impact on the local jazz scene since he moved to the area in 2003 to accept a full-time faculty position in Peabody’s new jazz department. Every time you turn around, there he is, on the stage or in the audience. Unlike many academics, whose interest ends at their institution’s front gate, Formanek believes that a college program, especially a jazz program, can only benefit from give-and-take with the outside world. Everyone has benefited: Peabody’s jazz students, Baltimore’s jazz fans, and Formanek himself.
“Some faculty hate the word ‘relevance,’” Formanek says. “But I think it’s crucial that institutions of higher learning maintain a connection to the outside world. Jazz, especially, can’t exist in the vacuum of a school. Improvising is a very lonely activity, but if you don’t get out and encounter different people, you’ll never know if you’re really communicating anything or not.
“In very few instances will students ever do what they do in the classroom after they graduate,” he continues. “That doesn’t exist in the real world, so I push them to get out there and experience what really does exist. Because learning to play is just part of what you have to learn. You have to learn how to create a scene, how to run a gig, how to respond when a bandleader calls out a tune you’ve never played before. This is how my world works, and you have to leave the classroom to learn it.”
When the Peabody Jazz Department was officially launched in 2001, Formanek was at a crossroads in his own career. He was a fixture on New York’s creative-music scene, recording with the likes of Marty Ehrlich, Uri Caine, and the Mingus Big Band and touring with bandleaders such as Ehrlich, Caine, Mike Mainieri, and Gerry Hemingway. Formanek and saxophonist Tim Berne were co-leaders of a band called Bloodcount that frequently toured and recorded, and the bassist filled out his schedule with private lessons, commercial recording dates, and one-off Manhattan gigs.
In many ways it was an exhilarating life, for he was making music with some of the best jazz musicians in the world and he was paying his bills. But it was frustrating, too. He didn’t really like New York; he and his wife, photographer Sandi Eisner, had moved to Milford, Pa., in 1992, and Formanek only came into Manhattan for work. Nor was he fond of the road, especially after his son Peter was born in 1995. And he was tired of the sideman’s role, of working on everyone’s music but his own.
“My whole focus was changing,” Formanek explains. “I wasn’t into being a sideman because I’d already done that. But being a bandleader wasn’t panning out for me the way I wanted. I had gotten some good reviews for my solo bass album [1998’s Am I Bothering You?] and I had received a commission from Chamber Music America to write music for my duo with Tim Berne. Tim and I were getting good duo gigs, but every time I tried to do a bigger group, I had trouble coordinating everyone’s schedules and lining up gigs from promoters.
“Most years I’d spend 160-170 days on the road. It could be the greatest time in my life or the worst. The great part was playing the music and the camaraderie of hanging out with such terrific musicians. And when you tour a place like Italy, the promoters make sure you eat better than you ever would at home. On the other hand, the disruption of continuity was hard on my home life—and on my composing as well. My head started going in a different direction. The thought of being in one place, preferably a medium-sized city, became very appealing. I thought of moving to Denver or Seattle.”
It was at this point that Formanek got the fateful call from Gary Thomas. Thomas, the tenor saxophonist who has recorded with everyone from John McLaughlin and Sam Rivers to Cassandra Wilson and Greg Osby, had returned to his native Baltimore in 1997. He was teaching at Peabody and was pushing the school to create a jazz department. Once he got the OK for the department, he began recruiting part-time faculty and one of his first calls was to Formanek.
“I can’t remember where I first met Mike, but the first time we toured together was with a Swedish saxophonist, Henrik Frisk,” Thomas says. “We did several master classes on that tour, and that’s when I noticed that Mike had a thing for teaching. He was really good with students.
“I think Mike is a lot like me,” Thomas adds. “I don’t think I’m cut out for the road. As musicians, we spend most of our time hanging out on trains and airports and only a small fraction of the time actually playing music. Being on the road a lot, your chops stay in order, but the self-development thing is hard to keep up. What I found was I’d start a new composition or project, and then I’d go away and lose track of it. I found myself doing that a lot, and it got old.”
Thomas recruited a remarkable roster of part-time faculty: Formanek, alto saxophonist Osby, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, pianist Tim Murphy, drummer Howard Curtis, vocalist Jay Clayton, guitarist Paul Bollenbeck, and trombonist Jim McFalls. Osby has since moved on, but the others are still on board. By 2003, the department had grown from 11 majors to 19, and Thomas needed to hire a second full-time teacher. The obvious choice was Formanek, who had “spent more time on campus than many full-time faculty,” Thomas says.
“As with everything else I’ve ever done, I found myself diving into teaching,” Formanek says. “I was like a kid in a candy store. I suddenly had the time and freedom to indulge my natural curiosity as part of my job. Like today, for example, I spent part of the day researching the Count Basie Orchestra and part of the day checking out John Cage.
“And I enjoyed the teaching. It was a way I could take everything I’d ever learned about music and pass it on. By being forced to articulate these things to students, it reinforced those connections in my own mind—it reminded me that I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel each time, that I had things to build on. So it ended up helping me even as it helped someone else.”
So in 2003, Formanek packed up his family and moved them from rural Pennsylvania to Towson. He had been driving down once a week for two years, and he had played in town before that—with Chet Baker at the Bandstand and with Freddie Hubbard at Ethel’s Place—but in many ways he was finally discovering Baltimore for the first time.
“Baltimore is small enough that anyone who’s into culture at all is likely to cross paths with anyone else who’s into culture,” he says. “In that way, it reminds me of the San Francisco of my youth, where all the little scenes cross-pollinated. Since I’ve been living here full-time, I’ve discovered all these other worlds here. The pace is slower than New York, but it’s not so slow that I feel I have to finish people’s sentences for them. When I talk to someone in Baltimore, I don’t get the sense that they’re looking over my shoulder to see if there’s someone more important they should be talking to. That happened all the time in New York. I did it myself.”
With the stability of a full-time job, Formanek has been able to return his attention to composing. One of his main pursuits now is writing for strings. He formed the Minor Infractions Ensemble (violinists Mark Feldman and Gloria Justen, violist Maria Lambros, cellist Michael Kannen, fellow Peabody jazz instructor Murphy on piano, drummer Jon Seligman, and Formanek himself) as a vehicle for that music. Its March 6 show at the Second Presbyterian Church was one of the year’s highlights thus far. Kannen, the chairman of Peabody’s Chamber Music Department, shares a concert with Formanek at Peabody Dec. 6.
In 2002, Formanek took over the Peabody Jazz Orchestra from Thomas because the bassist had so much big-band experience. When Sue Mingus, Charles Mingus’ widow, founded the posthumous Mingus Big Band, for example, she chose Formanek to take over her late husband’s bass job. Formanek had also played with the Bob Mintzer Big Band and the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra.
He quickly decided that he wanted his Peabody students to focus on one or two key figures in modern big-band music each semester rather than pick up bits and pieces from the swing era. They began with Mingus and then moved on to Thad Jones, Jim McNeely, Mintzer, and Maria Schneider, climaxing each semester with a public concert. This past semester they focused on Sam Rivers and his dazzling orchestral music for the albums Inspiration and Culmination. Next semester, the Peabody Jazz Orchestra concentrates on Dave Holland’s music with public concerts Dec. 10 and 11.
“Some of the best jazz I’ve ever seen was the trio of Sam, Dave, and Barry Altschul in the ’70s,” Formanek says. “It was very complex and very evolved, but it always had a groove. It had a melody line you could hang onto, but the composers always left it to the soloist to interpret those lines. Both Sam and Dave applied those principles to their big-band music. Sam doesn’t play many out-of-town gigs anymore, but I wanted to bring him to Baltimore, so the students—and anyone in the community who cared—could see an 81-year-old guy who never got comfortable repeating what had made him famous at age 30, like so many people in the arts do.”
The second-floor performance space at the An die Musik record store has become Formanek’s favorite stage in town, both for its acoustics and its convenience (it’s just a few blocks from Peabody). This coming fall, the bassist will be collaborating with several top musicians in the Mount Vernon rowhouse: pianist Marilyn Crispell (Sept. 17), pianist Dave Burrell (every Thursday in October), trumpeter Dave Ballou (Nov. 12), and pianist Harold Danko.
This past school year, Formanek tried to establish a Monday-night big-band residency at An die Musik, modeled on the famous, decades-old Monday nights at the Village Vanguard in New York. It hasn’t quite taken hold in Baltimore yet, but the bassist is determined to be one of the people rekindling the thriving, varied jazz scene in this city, not only for his students but also for himself. After all, this is his home now.
“We tend to be really New York-centric when we talk about jazz,” Formanek says. “Most good players spend some time there, but now that Europe has become such an important part of the jazz world—not just as a place to play but also as a place where new ways of playing are being invented—that world is a lot less centralized. A lot of the best musicians in improvising music don’t live in New York anymore. If cities like Seattle and Milan can become viable alternatives to New York, so can Baltimore.”
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