Often when a jazz bassist takes the lead in a band, the architecture of the music is a highlight. The lines are clean, and the structure is boldly sturdy. This is as true of legends like Dave Holland as it is of mid-career stars like Linda May Han Oh or Dezron Douglas and fast up-and-comers like Nick Dunston. Michael Formanek is an exception; his music is well structured, but he likes a little messiness in mix. And it works. During the last 12 years or so, few can match the bassist’s diverse and stellar output. He has led bands with some of the leading virtuosos in jazz including Tim Berne, Craig Taborn, Mary Halvorson, Ches Smith, and Kris Davis, and he’s a member of the collective trio Thumbscrew with Halvorson and Tomas Fujiwara. Formanek’s music is driven by a strong inner logic, but it’s open to abstraction and diversion and benefits from it. In many ways, it’s a product of the circuitous route he has taken through music.
At 63, he’s equal parts professorial and avuncular, and whether chatting after a gig or on a Zoom call for a story, he seems ready to punctuate many of his sentences with a chuckle. In describing his upbringing in Northern California, he says, “everybody likes to say, you know, ‘I was listening to Albert Ayler when I was nine,’ and all, but, but the thing is, there is some truth to that, but I would have been more like 14 or 15.” Enraptured with jazz at an early age, he was nurtured by the thriving Bay Area scene, from attending shows by the greats at the Keystone Korner to checking out albums from his library in San Mateo County and playing with local legends like Sonny Simmons.