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A Man A Plan: Michael Formanek Brings A Palindromic Trio To Bop Stop

Michael Formanek Drome Trio: Vinnie Sperazza, Chet Doxas, Michael Formanek
from left: Vinnie Sperazza, Chet Doxas, Michael Formanek

When you think of the tradition of getting together to play music on the back porch, you probably imagine a bunch of guys with guitars and fiddles and maybe a washtub bass deep in a backwoods hollow. But when the back porch is in suburban North Jersey, things look a little different.

So when Chet Doxas and Vinnie Sperazza joined bassist Michael Formanek outdoors last summer, they brought saxophones and a drum kit respectively. And though the gatherings started as a way to make music collectively in those dark, pre-vaccine days, they ended as the Michael Formanek Drome Trio, a new band that makes its Cleveland debut Tuesday, March 29 at Bop Stop.

Formanek had enjoyed working with Doxas and Sperazza in various settings and when gigs disappeared in early 2020, all three musicians were looking for an opportunity to play. “They reached out to me and said, ‘We’re willing to play outside and wear masks,'” the 63-year-old Bay Area native remembered. So they did just that. “We would play tunes, we would improvise, and then eventually I wrote this music that kind of became the focus. And then it just sort of started to develop as a trio.”

Before long, the trio developed into a recording, Were We Where We Were, and the recording spawned a new label, Formanek’s Circular File Records imprint. At a time when musicians weren’t able work, Formanek certainly accomplished a great deal.

In the isolation of the early days of the pandemic, the bassist and composer began to hear music a little differently. He became intrigued by palindromic forms, music that can be played in one direction and then reverses and plays backwards to the beginning. Supported by a grant from the Jazz Coalition, Formanek wrote–or in the case of his graphic scores, drew–a series of new palindromic compositions that he tested and developed with Doxas and Sperazza in the back yard laboratory.

“I’m not somebody that just starts with an idea and says, ‘I’m going to make everything fit this idea,'” Formanek said. “I start experimenting with something kind of organically in my mind, just trying things, going through ideas, and it will occur to me that there’s some kind of a system here that I can use to organize and develop this material and maybe unify it.”

“He’s a very special composer,” Doxas told me in a phone conversation in December. “The fact that the sheet music came out of the graphic score is very unusual. Usually those two things don’t necessarily coexist, but Michael’s totally fused these all perfectly.”

Not surprisingly, Doxas describes the music in the graphic scores in visual terms. “I’m a lover of the visual arts, and it . . . reminds me of brutalist architecture, big, moving parts. On the surface there might be some maximalism, but under the moving parts are these monoliths of ideas that slowly are shifting, and they’re very stark in color. To me, this music sounds like an ancient civilization that disappeared, a very advanced civilization.”

Far from disappearing, the Drome Trio is on the road playing 10 cities on an 18-day tour that concludes in Cleveland. It’s an ambitious schedule, but not an unusual one for Formanek who, unlike many musicians, had a busy 2021, appearing in 10 countries with the cooperative trio Thumbscrew and Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl.

The Bop Stop date will be Formanek’s first in Cleveland since November 2019 when he played a duo gig presented by the New Ghosts organization at Mahall’s Apartment with his son Peter, a rising tenor saxophonist. It was a cold night and when a space heater blew a fuse, the Formaneks played in the dark. “Luckily we were just playing acoustically and then someone brought up a power cord from the lower floor and we had a couple of lights so we could play some of the written music,” Formanek remembered with a chuckle.

“It wasn’t a big audience, but it was a really hardcore small audience,” Formanek said. “So that was great. But you know, I think Cleveland is a really important music town. I started playing gigs there probably around 1980 or ’81 with Stan Getz–a great, great place, so we’re really looking forward to playing there.”

And if Formanek’s palindromic proclivities prevail, with any kind of luck he’ll turn right back around and play here again.

Michael Formanek Drome Trio Tuesday, March 29 at 7 p.m. at Bop Stop, 2920 Detroit Ave., Cleveland. In-person are $15 at the door available here. The concert will will be livestreamed at Bop Stop’s Facebook page. Viewing the stream is free but donations to the band and the venue are appreciated and can be made here.