With 'Even Better,' Michael Formanek's Very Practical Trio Lives Up To Its Name

Jan 6, 2020
Originally published on January 9, 2020 11:55 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Jazz bassist Michael Formanek has led a few bands in recent years, from quartets to big band. For what he calls his Very Practical Trio, he's drafted two regular collaborators, saxophonist Tim Berne and guitarist Mary Halvorson. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has a review of their new album.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL FORMANEK'S VERY PRACTICAL TRIO'S "BUT WILL IT FLOAT")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Bassist Michael Formanek's Very Practical Trio with saxophonist Tim Berne, an old comrade, and slippery guitarist Mary Halvorson, a frequent ally nowadays. She was on a few fine records in 2019 besides getting a MacArthur. Halvorson, as ever, combines power chops with a wayward sensibility and superb timing. Check out her seamless switch from rhythm to lead guitar on "Bomb The Cactus."

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL FORMANEK'S VERY PRACTICAL TRIO'S "BOMB THE CACTUS")

WHITEHEAD: The collective improvising gets rowdy on the Very Practical Trio's CD "Even Better," but at heart, this is melodic music. The players don't neglect the tune when they jam. Tim Berne's solos have a lot of internal drive, a good thing in a band without a drummer. But he also has a plaintive lyrical side that comes out on the one older tune here, bassist Scott LaFaro's "Jade Visions."

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL FORMANEK'S VERY PRACTICAL TRIO'S "JADE VISIONS")

WHITEHEAD: With three melodic instruments in play, the players frequently recombine. They may stand together or two against one or each on their own. Through all the change-ups, the music has textural clarity and snap. This trio doesn't need drums. Mike Formanek's compositions are designed to wind up the improvisers, but his convoluted tunes have their catchy and mysterioso sides.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL FORMANEK'S VERY PRACTICAL TRIO'S "IMPLAUSIBLE DENIABILITY")

WHITEHEAD: While leader Formanek takes the spotlight sometimes, this band isn't about bass solos but the ensemble dynamic and give-and-take. Michael Formanek and Mary Halvorson started working together after they hit it off on the bandstand one night, and they tap into that instant rapport any time they play together. Formanek shows how a great jazz bassist shepherds a soloist through a song's form.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL FORMANEK'S VERY PRACTICAL TRIO'S "STILL HERE")

WHITEHEAD: Dispensing with percussion, this unit is also a kind of chamber ensemble, as on Michael Formanek's "Shattered," a somber meditation on the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shootings. On the album "Even Better," the players run through a lot of moods and musical possibilities with concentrated resources, so the Very Practical Trio lives up to its name.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL FORMANEK'S VERY PRACTICAL TRIO'S "SHATTERED")

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and The Audio Beat. He reviewed "Even Better," the new album by bassist Michael Formanek's Very Practical Trio. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Peggy Orenstein, who has chronicled the lives of girls for 25 years. After writing a book about girls and sex, she's written a new book called "Boys & Sex: Young Men On Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent And Navigating The New Masculinity." I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Aubrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL FORMANEK'S VERY PRACTICAL TRIO'S "SHATTERED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.