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Listening Post: Advanced Manhattan jazz 50 years apart – Formanek and Thad Jones/Mel Lewis


Michael Formanek and Ensemble Kolossus “The Distance” (ECM); Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, “All My Yesterdays: The Debut 1966 Recordings at the Village Vanguard” (Resonance, two discs plus program book)

Here, separated by half a century, are spectacular disc celebrations of some of what has seemed, in different jazz eras, the last word in jazz orchestral thinking. The thrilling 21st century one is the Ensemble Kolossus of bassist/leader/composer Michael Formanek, an 18-piece big band out of Ellington, Gil Evans, Bob Brookmeyer, Maria Schneider and, yes, Sun Ra and Anthony Braxton.

Says 48-year-old Formanek “I wanted a large, rich, chewy sound with this music … I also wanted a lot of different colors and textures, with some sharp edges occasionally … There’s a lot of written material but also a lot of freedom in how we get from one point to the next. Things are riskier than with the usual big band.”

You can say that again. From the impressionistic opening to some of the wilder simultaneous improvisations of the “Exoskeleton Suite,” this is gripping music. Formanek says he was inspired by everything from the massive chords in Messiaen organ music to Mingus and Sun Ra. The orchestra is led by Mark Helias and includes such stellar New York musicians as Mary Halverson and Tim Berne. A spectacular new jazz orchestra.

As, in 1966, was the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band you’ll hear on the opening “Back Bone,” the ripping first time the band played at the Village Vanguard. Eventually, the band took over Monday nights there and was always a kind of amazing and improvising workshop for both players and composer/arrangers (as Mingus’ groups always were for his music alone.)

There are 100 minutes of music on these discs – at least 40 of it truly great – along with a 92-page book of reminiscences with the band’s singular surviving personnel – Jimmy Owens, Tom McIntosh, Jerry Dodgion, Eddie Daniels, Richard Davis, Garnett Brown. The playing of all is ripping and brilliant, along with that of Joe Farrell, Snooky Young, Pepper Adams and Bob Brookmeyer (of particular high-energy are the duo trombone soloing of Garnett Brown and Bob Brookmeyer).

Ratings: 4 stars (out of four) for both.

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