Risky Business 

Tim Berne and Michael Formanek merge jazz styles on their own terms.

Michael Formanek (left) and Tim Berne: Two ornery guys.
  • Michael Formanek (left) and Tim Berne: Two ornery guys.
Saxophonist Tim Berne and bassist Michael Formanek share a fairly long history together. Berne first collaborated with Formanek when he joined the bassist's Wide Open Spaces Band almost a decade ago. Formanek later returned the favor when he joined Berne's long-running raucous band Bloodcount. By 1996, the two enjoyed each other's musical company so much that they skipped on the sidemen and went out on the road as a duo.

Berne's and Formanek's approaches to music intersect more often than they diverge -- as their many successful collaborations attest -- but they do come from slightly different corners of the jazz tradition. Berne emerged out of Julius Hemphill's R&B-powered free jazz movement, while Formanek hails from more melodic climes. The stark duo setting, free from drums or competing horns, sets these divergences in relief -- which isn't entirely surprising. What does surprise, however, is just how well the differences between Berne and Formanek complement one another.

On Ornery People, the only disc recorded by the Berne/Formanek Duo, Berne plays with intensity and focus, but takes a more measured approach than he typically does. He still grabs hold of musical phrases, varying the texture and stretching and restretching it over the same complex rhythm, until he wrings it dry. But he also keeps the overblowing to a minimum, often playing softly and leaving open spaces in his solos. Here, Berne's squawking and confrontational manner exploits the pianissimo range of the dynamic spectrum.

For Berne, the duo setting has brought out a new side to his playing. "There's no drummer, so dynamically I have a huge range," he says. "Sonically, you can hear every note, every idea really clearly. When you're reduced to two people, there's a certain freedom in a duo that's really exciting. Because I can't lean on the drummer, it's more of an exchange."

Behind Berne, Formanek's sound is absolutely huge. The bassist works in abstractions -- popping pizzicatos, drones, rumbles -- throughout, but more often than not, he simultaneously invests his playing with lyricism, pulse, and forward motion. Formanek doesn't just support Berne; he emits a great sonic field of possibility. At any point in time, Berne can and does blast off with the freedom or lock in to the structure that Formanek cultivates in his playing. It makes for very unpredictable and fecund music.

"The thing about Michael is that I can't think of anything he can't do that I'd want to do musically," says Berne. "Then you combine that with his openness to any kind of music, and his ears -- the way he listens and reacts. He's not just going to play the role of the bass player, and at the same time, even though he doesn't play a traditional supportive role, he plays a very supportive role. He's also playing for the sake of the music -- not to be noticed."

For the last few years, Berne and Formanek have been giving more and more time to the duo project, which started out as a fun and easy side gig. Since then, the two have etched out the parameters of their improvisations and worked out a common improvisational language. But for them, part of the job is keeping it dicey. The two still take a perverse pleasure in frustrating their own expectations when they perform.

"Say we play a tune one night, and it happens to go in a certain direction, and it really works," says Formanek. "We are probably the kind of people who might go completely contrary the next night -- even when we could have gone for something that might have worked -- just to keep it different, keep it improvisational, and keep the surprises happening. That's something that a lot of people that I play with don't have. They say, "We did that one thing and everyone clapped, everyone said, "oooh,' so let's do it again.' For better or worse, we are pretty stubborn about how we try to re-create things like that. If you have two people who disagree about that, it's going to be really difficult to make music every night, because one is trying to go for this obvious thing, something that they know works, and the other is trying to dig a little deeper. But at the same time, we want it to be good, we want it to work -- but our way of getting there is a little more risky."

For both musicians, the risk is well worth the freedom they get as a duo. "I don't feel like, as a bass player, I have to deal with time," says Formanek. "I don't have to deal with being functional or not functional, supportive or not supportive. Those roles, especially in the duo, get handed around pretty freely. I think that [Berne] knows, as I do, that if something that's normally there isn't there, it's usually for a reason."

For Berne, much of the freedom and adventure comes simply from playing with a bassist like Formanek. "He rarely approaches things the same way twice," he says. "If we're doing several concerts, every night is different. And he's confident enough and good enough to be able to do that. It really pushes me out of my comfort zone."

Berne's mentor, Julius Hemphill, loved playing duets with his longtime musical partner, cellist Abdul Wadud. According to Formanek, this duo and famous others have most surely worked their way into the Berne/Formanek subconscious, but looking to these duos as influences misses the point.

"There are different duos that I've listened to and enjoyed," says Formanek. "I love [Wadud's] playing, especially with Julius. And it does cross my mind from time to time. But not to a huge degree. It's something that I'm conscious of. If nothing else, it's an inspiration. And I think somewhere, on some level, Tim will play something that will kind of trigger that response, and emotionally, I'll grab on to that thing. But I never really associated it as being the same -- different band, different set of music."


More by Aaron Steinberg


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