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Mike Formanek...From His Own Edge

"Without some discomfort there is no growth."

Witness an album like "Wide Open Spaces" and you'll know what this means. There's certainly no discomfort in listening to it. It’s an anthem to the restlessness that drives improvisational music to those unquantifiable, unexpected qualities that make it unique and alive, often surprising even its purveyors as they create it.

Michael Formanek is a musician/composer first and bassist by choice. Or as he said, "It chose me." He has had the fortune to express the distant fringes of collaboratively produced music with the likes of tenor icons Joe Henderson, Dave Liebman and Stan Getz , Freddie Hubbard, Tony Williams, the Mingus Big Band, Gunther Schuller, Peter Erskine, Gary Thomas and Greg Osby, to name just a few.

He continues to write from the edge with an open mind and performs with some of the most creative neo-improvisational artists. And now, he also brings his knowledge base to students at the Peabody Conservatory. Currently working in ongoing contexts with Tim Berne, Marty Erlich and others, Formanek tours this spring with these and other groups. Check out the website below for all the latest. When and why did you choose bass and what were your original influences both on bass and music in general?

Michael Formanek: "It sounds kind of corny, but I think the bass chose me. My first encounter with the double bass was in fifth grade. I think I picked it off a list of instruments and barely knew what it was. That ended up being a pretty miserable experience, both because of the music teacher and the fact that I only brought it home one time all year to practice. A couple of years later I was playing electric guitar and I guess I lost the coin flip, so the other guys made me play bass at first on the low strings of the guitar with the bass turned all the way up on the guitar and amp, then on an electric bass. I stuck with it for a while and actually got into my high school big band and played rock & roll and blues. My real interest in bass in a jazz context started at around age fifteen. I went to a concert in which Ron McClure was playing with the Australian pianist, Mike Nock. It was the first time I'd ever heard someone doing anything other than walking on the bass and I really liked it. Ron was playing really long solos over changes, and they were playing some free piece, acoustic and electric. That was it. I found a teacher a couple of weeks later and I was off and running. Early bass and music influences were, and still are, Mingus, Charlie Haden, Ornette Coleman, Miroslav Vitous, Miles Davis, and Coltrane." Most players have events they can point to that they feel are turning points for them regarding direction etc. What do you think are yours?

Michael Formanek: "The first was definitely the one I spoke about before, hearing McClure play. The next was a reaction to what most people would consider a great opportunity. When I was 18 or 19, I was hired to play in Tony Williams’ Lifetime Band. At that point, Tony was being heavily influenced by heavy metal and punk. All he wanted from me was a big, simple, loud bottom. It was obviously exciting playing with Tony, but I already knew that the acoustic bass was my ‘thing.’ We went on tour on the west coast and the southwest, and it was the first time I'd been away from my upright since I started playing it. I would go into these little clubs and hotel lounges that had ‘jazz’ so I could sit in. I never considered myself a very good electric bass player anyway. I moved to New York from California in 1978, which was a major event in, and of itself. I was playing with Dave Liebman’s band and also playing a lot of Brazilian music. I was starting to work quite a bit after a couple of years, but once again the acoustic vs. electric thing was bugging me. I'd do these jazz gigs on acoustic and pretty much be left alone to play. Then I'd do electric gigs that maybe were a bit more ‘pop-y’ or ‘fusion-y,’ and people were always asking for certain kinds of stylistic things or thinly disguised requests for something more like Jaco, or Marcus Miller, or Will Lee. I'd end up on these studio sessions that would be like Equadorian Christmas Disco albums, and have to play some disco thumb-popping Bolero and be so uncomfortable that I couldn't handle it. In 1983, I put the electric bass back in the case, forever! The next few years were pretty cool because I started getting a lot of fairly high profile jazz gigs. That continued pretty much until the end of the 1980's. I had played with many big name leaders and continued to work in that scene, but I wasn't happy just doing the gig and making someone else's band work. I started listening to a lot of different kinds of music and I'd been writing more and more music as time went on. The only problem was that most of the music I wrote didn't really fit into the format that I was mostly involved with. That led me to the reality of composing and recording my own music." "Wide Open Spaces" is a great record and very unique in its intensity and type of expression. How did you go about the writing, arranging, choosing players and the recording process? Was there rehearsal or just gigs preceding its recording?

Michael Formanek: "Wide Open Spaces was a very intense project for me. It pretty much went like this: I had written a couple of tunes and arranged one Bernhard Herrmann piece for violin, guitar, bass and drums. I got together with Wayne Krantz, Mark Feldman, and Jeff Hirshfield to play. I really liked what I heard. I nailed down the record date with ENJA using those guys, plus Greg Osby on about half the record. We rehearsed a couple of times as a band, then the night before the recording we did one gig. We recorded for two days, live to 2-track. We recorded all of the tunes and a lot of the shorter pieces, or segments as well. After that, I assembled it into what I considered to be a logical, cohesive, musical statement meant to be listened to as a continuous piece of music." Its very convincing in that respect. Krantz and Feldman were interesting choices for that CD (violin being a rare jazz instrument). Was this a working band at all?

Michael Formanek: "They were the absolute perfect choices for this project, incredible ensemble players, tons of personality, snappy dressers. It actually was a working band, but not with Greg Osby. By the time the record came out, Greg was really busy and unable to make a lot of these little gigs that I was booking around New York at the time. I tried it with a few different saxophone players and then we played with Tim Berne whose playing and composing I really liked already. It immediately felt like a band and that became my "Wide Open Spaces" band. We did it for a couple of more years, one CD, a couple of European Festivals, and one little West Coast tour. For me, that is a working band." In the liners to that CD you'd mentioned being inspired by everything from a film score, "Lawrence of Arabia," to a Far Side cartoon; metaphorical thinking transferred to music. What’s your process for writing music from conceptual ideas like this?

Michael Formanek: "Often it’s just a starting place, a template that falls away when the music begins to flow. Sometimes is just gives me a mood or attitude that I'd like to convey through music." Counterpoint and an orchestral sensibility seem to often be present in your work. Did you study composition formally? How much does classical music play a role in your work?

Michael Formanek: "I always find this difficult to discuss without sounding pretentious, but I'll try and give it a shot. Yes, I am very interested in counterpoint and orchestral sensibility is very important to me. Yes, I studied composition, but not very formally. I studied for a period of time with a great American composer, Robert Aldridge. He mainly got me to feel comfortable writing down my ideas, developing and organizing them. I learned a lot from him, but I wouldn't consider myself a trained composer." What's your philosophy and preferences (re: hardware and software) on recording?

Michael Formanek: "I'm pretty low tech as far as my knowledge of recording gear goes. I usually prefer a digital format, whether live to DAT, ADAT, or Multi-track digital. I know all the reasons I should like analog better, but I usually don’t. Especially as far as the bass is concerned. Good mics are the one thing that I get picky about. Even there I can be flexible if an engineer has a concept that I wouldn't usually use. Normally I ask for a Neumann, preferably a U87 on a stand, and if we decide we need something in the bridge for presence and clarity, I like Schoeps mics. As far as the rest of the band, most everyone that I play with have very strong ideas about their own sounds, so if I'm ‘producing’ a record, I just want to make sure that the individual sounds blend together well. Also, I look for an honest representation of the group sound. On top of that I really want to like the sound. If I've done all my preliminary homework, i.e., hired all the right people, the right studio, the right amount of time, ecetera, it should work out." What’s the meaning of the "am i bothering you" title of your website?

Michael Formanek: "The website was named after a solo bass recording which I recorded for Tim Berne's Screwgun label in 1998. Tim and I came up with the CD title, "Am I Bothering You?" during a brainstorming session on a train ride between Austria and Italy. It’s become sort of a sarcastic mantra that applies to many situations I find myself in, from trying to play thoughtful bass solos in noisy clubs, to dealing with record companies. It’s really just my way of keeping a sense of humor and avoiding the trap of taking myself too seriously." Do you still have a working relationship with ENJA for your own records?

Michael Formanek: "Relationship..yes,! At this point Matthias Winckelmann who owns the company doesn't seem too anxious to recording anything of mine. But I have to say, I have four records of my own, plus a few cooperative projects including the "Relativity" recording which is fairly recent. Besides that, I'm on a lot of ENJA CD’s as a ‘sideman.’ All together, I think I’m on 25+ ENJA recordings. I'd be sick of me by then too." Along with Greg Osby, Ingrid Jensen and Gary Thomas, you're teaching in the Peabody Conservatory’s new Jazz studies program now. What do you find are the most important things you want to impart to your students?

Michael Formanek: "I’m really excited about the Peabody Program. It’s so new that it really feels like it has lots of potential. What I'd really like to impart to my students is that they have to develop the ability to teach themselves. I try to get them to think like improvisers and to use all that they have learned and experienced to help them through every new musical situation that they encounter." Your own background was at Cal State. What did you learn there that you felt was most valuable to your development?

Michael Formanek: "I got the foundation of a really good general music education at Cal State, Hayward. It was foundation because I only went there for one year. I was already playing a lot of pretty ‘high level’ gigs in San Francisco and could never figure out what I would get from the school that I couldn't get in real life. I had two great teachers there though, Dr. Dennis DeCoteau, who recently passed away from Cancer. He was a brilliant musician and conductor. He was the musical director of the San Francisco Ballet for many years. And the other was Jeff Neighbor, my bass teacher. A really great working bass player with an extremely broad background, who continues to freelance in the Bay Area. He basically recommended that I drop out, and I agreed. He saw that all I wanted to do was play and I was doing that. I did get a lot of exposure to different music there, too." You've worked with a very wide range of musicians. Can you discuss the contexts in which you’ve worked with Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard, Dave Liebman, Stan Getz, Tony Williams, Mingus Big Band, Gunther Schuller, Peter Erskine and Gary Thomas?

Michael Formanek: "I think that the range goes a lot further than that, but this is the deal with these guys: Joe Henderson was primarily with his quartet on the West Coast in 1977-78. I did one or two other gigs with him much later, shortly before he stopped playing. Freddie Hubbard hired me for a 4-night gig in Boston in 1986, after he fired his whole band on the way up there. I ended up playing in his band for four years! I met Dave Liebman in San Francisco while he was living there around 1976-77. I played with him quite a bit out there and then joined his band with John Scofield, Adam Nussbaum, and Terumasa Hino after I moved to New York in 1978. I played in the Stan Getz quartet off and on during 1982-84. He kind of used me when George Mraz wasn't around or available, but I got a lot out of it musically. I got a call to audition with Tony Williams on the basis of a very non-typical recording that I made in mid-1970. It was kind of a heavy metal meets surrealism project. He evidently like my sloppy-ass electric bass playing enough to hire me for his Lifetime Band. I played in the Mingus Big Band from its inception in 1981, to around the middle of 1994. I've always loved his music and his approach to playing his music, so it was a great challenge which I really appreciated having the opportunity. I met Gunther Schuller doing the Mingus Epitaph European Tour in 1991. Shortly after that, he came up with the idea for a recording project involving the other members of the Epitaph Rhythm Section. I've known Peter Erskine since the early 80's. I used to run into him on tour with Steps and others. I've done a number of projects with him as a sidemen, including Bob Mintzer’ records, Eddie Daniels’ records, and Mike Maineri’s "American Diary." I've played gigs with Peter’s trio and with an English jazz orchestra playing Peter’s compositions. We also have a cooperative trio with Marty Ehrlich, Relativity, which has one CD out on ENJA. I've known Gary Thomas for a few years. We'd done a couple of recording and touring projects together before he asked me to play on his 1998 Winter and Winter release, "Pariah's Pariah." It’s a quartet CD with Gary, Greg Osby, John Arnold on drums, and myself. Gary also is the head of the jazz department at the Peabody Conservatory, where I'm also on faculty." Was it strange being hired by Williams, but not to play jazz per se?

Michael Formanek: "Very strange. When I first got the call I didn't know exactly what he was looking for. Of course, I showed up to audition at his Marin County home with both my electric and acoustic basses. He walked out into the living room and introduced himself. He took one look at the upright bass laying covered on its side and said, "You can leave that there!" It turned out to be fun and great experience, but we never did get to play any jazz together. The music he was going for was somewhat a continuation of what he’d done with Alan Holdsworth a few years earlier, mixed with his take on the punk rock scene that was new and thriving then. Actually, Holdsworth was there for the first couple of rehearsals, but ended up having to go back to England for some reason." I didn’t realize you worked with Holdsworth. What were those times like playing together? That’s quite a band. Was there keys or just trio?

Michael Formanek: "Unfortunately that’s all it was. No gigs, just a couple of rehearsals Alan, Tony, that same keyboard player I mentioned before, Paul Potyen, and me. At that point we were kind of playing a lot of the stuff that they had already played together. Holdsworth sounded amazing from what I can remember. I always like whatever I've heard of his. I wish we had done some gigs." What was the serial music meets metal project? Sounds interesting.

Michael Formanek: "Actually, I don't think that was a completely accurate description of the project. It was the music of a San Francisco Bay area keyboard player, Paul Potyen, and a drummer named Brad Bilhorn. Great musicians! Paul was a great early analog synthesist and Brad was kind of a Tony Williams, by way of Terry Bozzio, kind of drummer. But, the music was really loud, had a metal vibe, and the songs did incorporate 12-tone rows and serial techniques. My parts were very simple, low, loud, and kind of ignorant of everything else going on around me. That’s probably why Tony hired me from the tape. Little did he know that I wouldn’t become simple, low, loud, and ignorant until much later." Do you find that the audiences at festivals overseas appreciate different aspects of what you and other jazz artists do more than domestic audiences?

Michael Formanek: "I believe that's been the case in the past. I'm not so sure that it is as much right now. It’s starting to seem pretty conservative and retro over there too." What, for you, signifies a successful performance or recorded statement?

Michael Formanek: "The faith that it is or was an honest musical statement. If it’s primarily improvisational, it’s important that no one takes the easy way out and goes for the obvious, or falls back into their comfort zones too much. Without some discomfort there is no growth!" That's a really good point. Can you discuss the latest CD?

Michael Formanek: "Guess what, ¦there isn't one! I have all kinds of musical projects ready to go, but at this point I have no one interested in recording any of them." That’s hard to believe. I'm sure it’s just a matter of time. Are there any current gigs, projects, tours or recordings you'd like to mention?

Michael Formanek: "My ongoing projects include my Northern Exposure Quartet with Henrik Frisk, Dave Ballou, Jim Black and I, the Tim Berne/Michael Formanek Duo, a March tour with Marty Ehrlich's Quartet, an April tour with the Jacob Anderskov Trio in Scandinavia, and a really nice CD with Angelica Sanchez, Tony Malaby, Tom Rainey and I on Omnitone. Due out in the spring of 2002, right Frank!!!" Sounds good. We'll be on the lookout for those. Thanks for your thoughts.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Mike Formanek
  • Subtitle: The Interview
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