The Distance - Michael Formanek & Ensemble Kolossus (2016)
review and feature article Quotes

John Fordham, The Guardian
“The title track is a vaporous tone-poem of slow horn-section outbreaths and delectable harmonies, while the other tracks comprise Formanek’s ambitious eight-part Exoskeleton suite. The luminous voicings of the 40s Birth of the Cool band or the slinky blues-swing of a Charles Mingus group appear in glimpses, but spiky melodies are as prevalent as mellifluous ones, while no-prisoners solos are bookended by low-register vamps and fast-moving ensemble parts fizzing with chases and echoes. […] a visionary big-band project.”
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Jon Garelick, The Boston Globe
“The esteemed bassist and composer Michael Formanek hasn’t led a big-band recording until now, but with this release by his 18-piece Ensemble Kolossus he joins the ranks of state-of-the-art orchestral experimenters […] Working with longtime associates, Formanek nails every element of large-ensemble writing: sustained long forms with continuous development, lucid relationships between improvised and written material, details that ring out as part of a clearly articulated whole. Add to that a deep grasp of knotty grooves, free-form improv, fetching themes, and sweet, sweet swing. The sequencing is peerless […] Extraordinary.”
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Mark Sullivan, All About Jazz
“Bassist/composer Michael Formanek playfully calls this 18-piece group Ensemble Kolossus: it represents a bold creative leap forward from his previous quartet recordings ‘Small Places’ (ECM, 2012) and ‘The Rub and Spare Change’ (ECM, 2010). […] ‘The Distance’ is a remarkable achievement, which Formanek's smaller ensembles have only hinted at.”
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John Murph, Jazz Times
“The fascinating eight-movement ‘Exoskeleton’ suite occupies the bulk of the disc and functions as its emotional center. Exuding a widescreen cinematic splendor, the suite comes with punchy rhythmic motifs, striking dissonant harmonic stretches, luring melodies and enough improvisational brio to sustain interest during its hour-plus duration […] Formanek’s ‘Exoskeleton’ has the makings of a 21st-century classic. It brims with rich melodicism, textural wonder and sonic imagination.”
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Martin Johnson, The Wall Street Journal
“The ensemble has a remarkably intimate and austere sound that gracefully increases to dramatic full-ensemble roars. The core of the recording is an eight-part suite of Mr. Formanek’s called ‘Exoskeleton’. Each segment features stellar solos from the band members, sometimes with section-based harmonies as a sonic backdrop and at other times full orchestral contrasts. […] ‘The Distance’ offers a new blueprint for post-millenial orchestral jazz.”
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Dave Gelly, The Observer
“Michael Formanek has reimagined the tones and textures that these 18 familiar instruments can create together, and the result is, to say the least, unsettling. From massive blocks of solid sound to delicate, wandering melodies, this music is bewildering in its sheer, determined difference. But it’s also gripping, because the ensemble acts as a setting for a parade of remarkable soloists.”


Dan McClenaghan, All About Jazz
“Unique and complex-yet approachable arrangements, vehemently vivacious soloing and a surprising array—through instrumental interplay—of new ideas on how a jazz orchestra ought to sound. A stunning achievement.”
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C.J. Shearn, Jazz Views
“‘The Distance’ is an album that is firmly rooted in the big band tradition while also moving it forward with provocative use of harmony and melody. Formanek, besides being a strong bassist, is a terrific writer, and the music allows the band and their individual talents to shine. The future for the Ensemble Kolossus is intriguing.”
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John Ephland, Downbeat (Five stars)
“Filled with engaging small-group sections and a recurring swirl of large-ensemble, angular hoedowns. The mood suggests a drunken or subterranean vibe, with constantly shifting and effective meters, the overall execution more patient than plodding, more like a slow-motion merry-go-round or roller coaster. […] Michael Formanek’s musical world is a kind of gracious envelopment of everyone present.”
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Tim Owen, Dalston Sound
“The Distance is hugely rewarding, big fun and fascinating by turns, and substantially expands on Formanek’s ECM quartet blueprint and all those acknowledged precedents. The ensemble has a big band’s heft for sure, with particular riches of timbre in the low end, but also a dextrousness and cogency that lets all of its members’ individualities count for something: a magnificent piece of work.”
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Kevin Le Gendre, Jazzwise
“Packed with bandleaders in their own right, Kolossus gels powerfully as an ensemble in which composed and improvised parts fit into a strong conceptual core. The balance struck between understatement and emphasis – and the overall narrative richness – is such that the music works as much as a caress in the twilight as it does a punch under a harsh neon glare […] A work of impressive gravity rather than bombast, ‘The Distance’ is an epic that more than justifies its grand scale and lofty ambition.”


Kevin Le Gendre, Echoes
“Kolossus gels powerful as an ensemble in which composed and improvised parts fit into a strong conceptual core. The balance struck between understatement and emphasis - and the overall narrative richness - is such that the music works as much as a caress in the twilight as it does a punch under a harsh neon glare.”


Cormac Larkin, Irish Times
“Formanek has created a work of arresting originality, connecting the ambiguous harmonies of Oliver Messiaen to the freedom of Charles Mingus, one that captures a moment in music, but one that will surely, with time, prove timeless.”
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Nick Lea, Jazz Views
“This quite simply is a magnificent album, both in terms of the magnitude of the undertaking in bringing together the 18 strong Ensemble Kolossus, and in the depth and richness of the writing. Having recorded two critically acclaimed small group sessions for ECM, ‘The Rub and Spare Change’ (2010) and ‘Small Places’ (2012), this represents a big leap forward and one that Formanek has made appear an easy transition. In assembling the large ensemble the bassist has sought the services of not just colleagues past and present with whose sound and concept he is intimately familiar but at the same time assembled some of the most forward thinking an innovative players on the New York scene. […] With the Ensemble working its way through Formanek's suite, the unified concept of the band as a living and breathing singular entity is firmly felt and amidst the sonic palette drawn from the organ works of Messiaen, and a nod to the orchestrations of Charles Mingus, Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill and Sun Ra the scope of this extraordinary music becomes apparent. Despite, or maybe even because of this, somehow Ensemble Kolossus have gelled together with Michael Formanek's concept and each other that the bassist feels able to further loosen the reins, and gives the final movement, 'Part VIII - Metamorphic' over to a full ensemble collective improvisation that is full of vitality and depth of purpose that it fits as a natural finale to what has gone before. Contemporary big band writing, arranging and performance does not get much better than this.”


Small Places (2012) review and feature article Quotes

John Ephland, [5 Star Review], DownBeat Magazine
January 2013 Issue

“This music plays like one long song, with pauses. Michael Formanek’s group with alto player Tim Berne, pianist Craig Taborn and drummer Gerald Cleaver is a mesmerizing unit, a collective whose musical syntax continues to suggest there aren’t four musicians here but one.” original link


Brian Morton, Point of Departure
Issue 41, December 2012

“If you can find a better contemporary jazz composition and performance than “Seeds and the Birdman,” you’re obviously listening to more records than I am, and you probably don’t have much of a family life. It’s a stunning piece, as is the wonky ballad form of “Slightly Off Axis.”….. this has to be one of the most exciting records of 2012.”
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Peter Bacon, The Jazz Breakfast
October 8, 2012

“Thoroughly original 21st century jazz from four thoroughly original jazz musicians playing one thoroughly original composer’s music.”
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Nate Chinen, New York Times Playlist Review
September 30, 2012

“On “Small Places” (ECM), the group’s potent, intriguing second album, each musician finds room for maximum expression, while committing to immersion in a larger sound. Mr. Formanek favors tonal and structural elasticity, and he has written music that feels specific to this personnel…” original link


Ben Ratliff, New York Times Fall Music Preview
September 7, 2012

“Small Places” brings back a really good jazz band first heard on “The Rub and Spare Change” in 2010… It’s spiky, graceful, warped-form music, played hard and precisely; cumulatively, these musicians have worked together a lot,in different bands led by each member, and know one another’s moves.” original link


Mike Shanley, Jazz Times Magazine November 2012 Issue
September 7, 2012

“The album’s title aptly describes the makeup of Formanek’s compositions, which have many small sections, offering something substantial to anyone ready to explore them. And even when the sound becomes spare and quiet the suspense never flags.”
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Brent Black, @CriticalJazz
September 22, 2012

“Small Place's compositions and improvisational make up are sonic synchronicity with a pulse. An ambient atmosphere with rich melodic flavor and a rhythmic sense of urgency one can feel in their soul. A dynamic excursion into a harmonic world of possibilities… Small Places is Michael Formanek's compositional and performance journey into a new realm. Small Places contains an ebb and flow within individual tunes that are as emotional and evocative as the legendary cover art ECM is known for. When held up to critical review, Small Places is literally the perfect recording.” original link


Peter Margasak, The Chicago Reader
October 26, 2012

“The tunes give each player a lot of space, even within sections that operate like clockwork mechanisms with their gears moving at different tempos. It's thrilling to hear the individual parts unite to create something coherent and fluid.“ original link


Pete Pardo, Sea of Trnaquility
“It's rare that you hear so many colors, textures, and emotions conveyed in music these days, but Formanek, Berne, Taborn, and Cleaver have done just that here. Bravo once again to a quartet that clearly are doing something truly remarkable in the field of jazz.” original link


John Kelman, All About Jazz
October 5, 2012

“There's no doubt that the group making Small Places has achieved even deeper chemistry, and a more profound ability to seamlessly fuse spontaneous creation with compositional construction, more often than not blurring the boundary between the two…Small Places' greater vertical depth and broader horizontal spectrum suggests that, while already delivering on early promises, Formanek and his empathic group—accomplished but never complacent, virtuosic without an ounce of excess, visceral and cerebral—still have plenty of paths to explore, with plenty of potential yet to mine.” original link


Troy Collins, All About Jazz
October 20, 2012

“The entire group shines on the visceral epic "Parting Ways," a variegated hue and cry counterbalanced by the atmospheric tone poem "Soft Reality," which illuminates a far more restrained facet of the unit's interpretive capabilities. Whether careening through the tremulous changes of "Rising Tensions And Awesome Light" or accentuating the lyrical minutia of the introspective "Slightly Off Axis," the near clairvoyant interplay of Formanek's all-star quartet makes Small Places one of the finest albums of his career.” original link


Hrayr Attarian, All About Jazz
October 26, 2012

“A superlative composer and improviser, Formanek has produced his masterpiece to date with Small Places. His career is still robust so more exquisite opuses are, hopefully, yet to come.” original link


Tim Owen, Dalston Sound
October 15, 2012

“The leader’s playing is as impressive as his composition skills.” original link


Stephen Graham, marlbank
October 02, 2012

“As for Formanek he’s the ringmaster in a very special circus. If you want to be obsessed by at least one CD this month then this is it.”
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Geoffrey Himes, Baltimore City Paper-Bass Heavy
September 19, 2012

“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.” original link

The Rub and Spare Change (2010) and live performances

"A nimble and powerful bassist"The New York Times

"a bold and unclassifiable bassist and composer"The New Yorker

About the Michael Formanek Quartet

"...a four-headed monster of veteran improvisation." "It was a breathtaking display, made even more so as the group came together again with a subtle but clockwork efficiency, a finely tuned machine at peak performance." The Los Angeles Times

" Formanek is truly a marvel on bass: his tone centered, his method intuitive yet deliberate -- musical..." original link


"The group feel encompasses 1960s-style freedom and mathematical intellectuality, but the quartet also goes for the heart..."
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