Bassist Michael Formanek’s latest album is a masterful work of postmodern jazz noir. First, there’s the title: The Rub and Spare Change. Dashiell Hammett himself couldn’t have crafted a more hard-boiled appellation—one that evokes double-crossing, corruption, and desperation. Then, there’s the cover art: a desolate, eerily-lit, urban streetscape centered on a dilapidated warehouse under a decaying bridge, seemingly leading to the bright lights of the gleaming big city in the background. Perhaps it’s the scene of some grotesque crime? Or the headquarters of a major crime syndicate? Surely it’s the end of the line for some sad sap? But in fact, the title and cover art only hint at the wonderfully ominous music that Formanek and his talented peers—alto saxophonist Tim Berne, pianist Craig Taborn, and drummer Gerald Cleaver—have included on The Rub and Spare Change.
Take Jerry Goldsmith’s soundtrack to Roman Polanski’s 1974 film Chinatown, add a healthy dose of Morton Feldman-esque drone, mix in a chunk of Ornette Coleman’s playful free jazz melodicism and improvisational chutzpah, and you’ll come close to approximating the sounds of The Rub and Spare Change. In theory, this is intellectual music, put out by ECM, the haute cuisine of the jazz fan’s diet. In practice, however, Formanek’s six original compositions are dark and visceral and it’s best if you put away your brain (and your prescription drugs) when you take a listen.
On album opener “Twenty Three Neo” (another rather noir-y designation), Taborn repeats a simple, off-kilter piano melody, while Berne’s saxophone stabs in and out of the open spaces, creating shards of rhythm. Formanek and Cleaver rock it free-form style underneath. Together, the quartet paints a hypnotic portrait using glacial, droning, and ethereal strokes. Near the song’s end, after the band fades out, Taborn returns with a jittery single-note keyboard line. This time, Berne blows long, sonorous notes from his horn slowly building to anxious crescendo.
Next up is the album’s titular track, which features a playful Ornette-style melody and stuttering rhythms. The band stops and starts in unison creating a frenetic effect. You could easily picture this music during a car chase or a fight scene in a Patricia Highsmith novel.
On “Jack’s Last Call,” Formanek and his cohorts really let the free jazz out of the bag. Filled with noisy blasts of sound and helter-skelter rhythms, the tune flips, flops, and contorts like a fish out of water. “Tonal Suite,” too, is chock full of spontaneously shifting sound collages. Taborn’s piano and Berne’s saxophone do a wild tango, creating an exhilarating tension that gets more chaotic as Cleaver coaxes the beat on. This is dark music, indeed, but—as is true of all good noir—the band’s playful exchanges suggest these four musicians are well aware of the humor and absurdity in it all.
“Too Big to Fail”, the last song on the album, serves as an excellent conclusion to The Rub and Spare Change. Formanek and company employ all of the musical tools they utilized on the previous tracks: droning keyboard that lulls the listener into a fugue state; staccato saxophone that pierces the song, leaving only scraps of sound; and a jumble of percussion and bass that forces out new rhythms.
The Rub and Spare Change is an achievement brimming with energy, with creativity, and with a ferocious playfulness lacking in a lot of new jazz. But, keep an eye out when you’re listening to this music: you never know what’s lurking in the shadows.