Michael Formanek
Small Places
ECM 370 9441 **** PICK OF THE WEEK

State of the art improvising with a forceful presence and massive attack, a mighty fist in a velvet glove, bassist Formanek’s quartet with Tim Berne, Craig Taborn and Gerald Cleaver (pictured above) is on fine form here, following on from their 2010 album The Rub And Spare Change. Berne has clearly moved into a new space with this band, building on the experimentalism of the past, his fascination with the music of Julius Hemphill and much else, and now with nothing to prove just letting it all hang out. Cleaver, expect to hear him on Tomasz Stanko’s next album for ECM, is peerless, pulses appearing, dying away, finding hidden rivers in the improvising stream. As for Formanek he’s the ringmaster in a very special circus. If you want to be obsessed by at least one CD this month then this is it.

Marc Johnson/Eliane Elias
Swept Away
ECM 279 4574 ***
Joe Lovano is the topping on the cake on this very classy quartet record of bass and piano husband and wife team Johnson and Elias also joined by Joey Baron on drums. There’s plenty to savour either via Elias’ own compositions or reliable mainstays such as the folk song ‘Shenandoah’. For sheer musicality it’s hard to beat. But Elias is probably at her best elsewhere interpreting the music of Bill Evans, or the way she adds that special touch to a samba or bossa, yet here she gets very close to her own formidable benchmark.

Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin
Live
ECM 371 4093 2CDs ***
There’s something very unearthly still about the band Ronin, and a feeling the more you listen that it is very much in a category of its own and that can be a lonely place. The minimalism still retains a zing to it despite its pristine cool facąde and all that confusing nonsense about “zen funk". The moduls are as mysterious and slightly chilling as ever, but there is change afoot as Bärtsch introduces a new bassist Thomy Jordi while Björn Meyer moves towards the exit door. I’m not sure if this release sustains two CDs, but it’s elegant, thought provoking and beautifully played, yet somehow not quite as compelling as in the past. Think twice before committing to this one unless you’re a diehard fan.

Stephen Graham