Bassist and composer Michael Formanek has worked with many leading North American and European jazz musicians over the span of his 35 year career, including Stan Getz, Marty Ehrlich, Evan Parker, Dave Burrell, and several ensembles with Tim Berne.  His new quartet with altoist Berne, pianist Craig Taborn and drummer Gerald Cleaver premiered at The Stone in 2008 and just released their debut record, The Rub and Spare Change, on ECM.  They’ll be playing Philadelphia for the first time on Thursday, October 28, and ANW was able to catch up with Michael to ask some questions about this exceptional new ensemble and record.

You’ve worked with Tim, Craig and Gerald frequently in the past.  What about their individual voices compelled you to assemble this quartet and how did you compose the pieces with the unique voice of each in mind?

I’d worked most frequently with Tim in the past, and enough with Craig and Gerald separately to know that I wanted to play more with both of them, and that I wanted to play with them together. First, it was the fact that they all have such individual voices that also happen to resonate with me. Individually, they are all amazing musicians of seemingly infinite skill and depth. Collectively, they are all capable of giving themselves up completely to the idea of group expression. It’s the combination of these qualities that made them the only choice for this particular project.

What do you think these players and the new album contribute to the ongoing dialogue between improvisation and composition?  How are you blurring or articulating this duality?

Is there a dialogue going on about this? If so, great! This is not a new idea, and if in some small way my music and recordings contribute to furthering this as an ideal, I’m very happy about that. Tim has been doing this very thing since well before I started playing with him, and his music has influenced my aesthetics in that area, both consciously and unconsciously for many years now. I think that the same is true of Craig and Gerald. The fact is that when it comes down to it, as far as I’m concerned, improvisation is composition, and composition is improvisation. They really are one in the same. In composition where there is no improvisation most, if not all, aspects of the music can be controlled. In improvisation the only parts that can be controlled are your own musical choices. In music that involves both composition and improvisation the challenges are fairly obvious. How to balance one’s ideas, whether they are simple seeds of musical ideas or fully formed musical statements, with the spontaneous individual or collective aspects of improvisation and the personal approaches of the players is the problem that most jazz composers have been attempting to solve for many years now. I think that Duke solved those problems quite well, as did Mingus, and so does Berne.

Did you enter the sessions with strong blueprints for the pieces or was it a more organic, collective process?

The pieces that I brought to these sessions were a mix of very specific and somewhat sketchy pieces. In all cases, though, my intention was for the pieces to not be completed until they were performed. I never wanted to have to sense that they were really done until I heard them played by this group. So, yes, there were strong blueprints, and yes, it was an organic, collective process.

The sound quality is a perfect mix of crisp and raw elements, which is a departure from the overproduction found on many jazz recordings nowadays.  How important was it for the final product to sound the way it does rather than any other way?

Sound is always important to me, but we’re constantly forced to compromise when it comes to the sound of our music. The recording studio can sometimes give us the most clarity, the most appealing instrumental sounds, and the most accurate balance. What may sound over produced today is simply the difference between something that is “produced” as opposed to something that’s just “documented.” There’s a place for both, and for everything in-between those extremes. In the case of The Rub and Spare Change we recorded the music in a small studio in northwestern New Jersey, with a very experienced engineer, Paul Wickliffe. But, we mixed the CD with Manfred Eicher at Avatar in New York with James Farber, who has recorded and mixed many ECM recordings. It was really amazing to see how Manfred approached the mix, and found details in the music that were buried very deeply in the musical fabric, and then found ways to bring them out and to add some air into the sound of the recording. This was a very collaborative recording on many different levels, and I feel that the CD has an overall sound that is inviting and enjoyable to listen to.

Will the quartet be performing pieces that didn’t make the record for the Philadelphia show?

There may be a couple of other pieces, but we’ll mostly be playing the music that we recorded for these October dates. We’ll be doing more in the spring, and will be adding quite a bit of new music.

There’s a good chance the Phillies will be in game 2 of the World Series the night of the concert.  Why should people come see the Michael Formanek Quartet instead of the game?

(1) Much better music than at the ball game. (2) Our performance can’t be recorded and watched on their Tivo’s later on, while the ball game can, and (3) No steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs, at least that I’m aware of.

The Michael Formanek Quartet will perform on Thursday, October 28 at Philadelphia Art Alliance (251 S. 18th Street).


Clarinetist, saxophonist, and composer Andy Laster has been involved in New York City’s jazz scene since the mid-1980s, when he relocated upon completing studies at Seattle’s Cornish Institute.  Since then he has worked with musicians such as Julius Hemphill, Hank Roberts, Cuong Vu, and Erik Friedlander.  In preparation for this week’s performance by his Sounds of Cairo ensemble – featuring Curtis Hasselbring on trombone, Alex Waterman on cello, and Kermit Driscoll on bass – Ars Nova Workshop asked Laster a few questions about this exciting project.

Who are some of the composers whose work Sounds Of Cairo perform, and what about their work and the larger cultural world of the time motivate the project?

Most of the pieces are by Dawud Husni and Zaki Murad, transcribed from recordings from the 1920s. French record labels such as Zonophone and Odeon did a booming business in Egypt, even prior to World War I.  Egypt led the Arab world in recording technology and much of Cairo’s middle class owned gramophones, making these early twentieth century recordings commercially viable.  I was drawn to Husni’s and Murad’s music because of its intense, bluesy tang and to the light sound and feel of their ensembles.  Husni and Murad were part of Cairo’s vibrant Karaite Jewish community, which thrived until the 1960s. Karaite Judaism is a sect that accepts Torah but not Talmud or Mishnah. As a Jew, this aspect further piqued my interest.

How did you select the instrumentation for the ensemble and in what ways does it differ from how these songs were traditionally performed?

The instrumentation of my ensemble is very different from that of a traditional ensemble, which included a few singers, a zither, fiddle, and sometimes a flute. My ensemble includes trombone, cello, bass and clarinet/saxophone.  I chose trombone because of its vocal quality, cello because of its warmth and ability to sound full and natural pizzicato or bowed, and bass because it provides the forward propulsion especially necessary in a drummerless ensemble.

How faithful to the original compositions are your arrangements?

The original songs are in the Dawr style of chant alternating with refrain. These were secular songs, performed in men's clubs.  The lyrics were often risqué.  I am purposefully unfaithful to the original compositions, having added contrasting sections and composed structures that are more suited for today's improvisers. The biggest area in which I was not faithful is regarding the use of the maqām.  Arabic music uses different modes and scales than Western European music and I believe it is nearly impossible to successfully intone these modes unless one has grown up in an Arabic musical environment. I do believe, however, that it is possible to capture the feel and spirit of these original recordings without playing themaqām, plus add something original, modern, and improvisatory along the way.

Andy Laster’s Sounds of Cairo will perform a free concert on Thursday, October 21 at The Rotunda (4014 Walnut Street).

Henry Rollins has been a fiery tongued advocate for independent music and creative culture since he was the frontman of seminal hardcore band Black Flag in the early 1980s. He has since released numerous solo music and spoken word albums, written several books on travel, politics, and music (including Get in the Van: On The Road with Black Flag, the audio version of which earned him a Grammy Award), hosted The Henry Rollins Show on the Independent Film Channel, and currently hosts a radio show on KCRW and is a regular columnist for Vanity Fair and LA Weekly. In the early 1990s, Rollins started a record label and publishing company called 2.13.61 as an outlet for his work and others. Among the label’s catalogue are three albums by composer and pianist Matthew Shipp: Critical Mass (1995), Zo (1997) and The Flow of X (1997). Knowing his deep knowledge and appreciation for jazz music – check out his recent contribution to JazzOnline’s Miles Davis podcast – Ars Nova Workshop asked Rollins to share some thoughts on Shipp. Here’s what he had to say:

Unknown Object“It is listening to Matthew Shipp’s work that has always been a reminder to me that real Jazz music, no matter how refined or complex it can be, relies primarily on guts. Jazz, invariably, is a visceral and raw endeavor, often making Rock music seem soft in comparison. For the player and the listener, alike, it is a total experience.

Matthew Shipp and his work have fascinated me since I first heard him many years ago. His originality and approach sometimes stretches the limits of what is considered Jazz music yet at the same time, describes perfectly the fierce freedom of it. It is always great to encounter such honesty in music. You know it when you hear it and it has a natural appeal but also carries a warning that you will have to deal with it on its terms. I don’t think Matthew has any other way of going about it.

Matthew is not only a brilliant Jazz pianist, he is a true artist and visionary. He is really taking it somewhere. I remember when I first met him, the quiet intensity of the guy was a halting reality check. Polite, soft spoken and completely unstoppable. To watch him play, the physicality of the man meeting the instrument is as full on a performance as I’ve ever witnessed.

I have encountered many musicians in my life and many are inspired and worthwhile but rarely are they so forcefully driven and honestly inspired as Matthew Shipp. Again, it’s coming from the guts, it’s the real thing.”

Matthew Shipp will be performing on Friday, October 15 at Philadelphia Art Alliance. To keep up with Henry Rollins’ numerous written and spoken engagements check out his official website.

Noise Storm

"Unless played very quietly, analytical thought is thwarted while Merzbow noise occurs, and even at quiet volume, there is still a jaggedness in the cutting, the bursts of sound, the alterations, that hinders the development of analysis," writes Paul Hegarty in his chapter on Merzbow from Noise/Music: A History.

In 1923, Dadaist Kurt Schwitter commenced his decade-long Merzbau project, for which he erected massive, cavernous structures throughout six rooms of his house in Hannover, Germany.  The rooms underwent constant transformation such that yesterday's labyrinths vanished and were distorted as more additions were made, more "junk" collected.

Hegarty compares Merzbow with Schwitter's Merzbau, arguing that both "accumulate to distort," paradoxically realizing formlessness through the excess of form.  Merzbow's magnitude disrupts the harmonious dialogue of faculties required for a smooth and calm aesthetic judgment, pushing out into the darkest corners of the sublime. Further, Merzbow noise exacerbates the already fragile attempt to verbally articulate the meaning(s) of sound.  Merzbow's perpetually shifting, expanding and abrasive sound structures simultaneously challenge tranquility and the elusive quest for permanence while producing a physically-engaging sonic experience like no other.

Merzbow performs with Hungarian drummer Balázs Pándi, with an opening set by Philadelphia-based Buchla Music Easel master Charles Cohen, on Monday, September 27 at International House (3701 Chestnut Street).  Be sure to arrive early, as coffee and vegan food items will be available from Philadelphia's noisiest vegan coffee shop, Grindcore House.


Silent Movies

For his new album, Silent Movies due out on Pi Recordings this month, guitarist Marc Ribot states that he’s exploring “the strange area between language and spatiality that exists partly in between music and visual image, and partly as a common property of both.” While he’s worked on several film scores in the past, such as Martin Scorsese’s The Departed and Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law, this recording is his first intensive investigation of an issue that has fascinated him throughout his long and diverse career.

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Ribot’s inspiration for Silent Movies came after a New York Guitar Festival performance in January 2010, for which he presented a live score for Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 silent film, The Kid. Prior to technological developments in the late-1920s, live (and mostly improvised) scores frequently accompanied and enhanced the visual experience of moviegoers. While Ribot is revisiting this fascinating tradition, his objective is to interpret the down-and-out struggles of the Little Tramp and the Kid as a contemporary tale whose social and political message has value to present day audiences. By approaching the film as a living text, Ribot shows the power music has to historically recontextualize images and their meanings.

Marc Ribot will be performing his live score for The Kid at International House Philadelphia (3701 Chestnut Street) on Sunday, September 26 at 8pm.

Whew! We kicked off the first week of the new season with five amazing performances: Jesse Kudler and Ian Fraser’s electronic and laptop minimalism, Fennesz’ profound and thunderous sonics that pushed the International House’s sound system further than we thought possible, Sleepthief’s spiraling improvisations that lingered between delicacy and fever, and a two-night 70th birthday celebration for Dave Burrell with William Parker and Sabir Mateen, who provided a blistering tenor saxophone interpretation of “Happy Birthday” as we brought out Dave’s cake!

Thanks to everyone who joined us for this busy first week!  For those who missed the shows, be sure to check out Nick Millevoi’s All About Jazz review of the Sleepthief performance here and David R. Stampone’s Philadelphia Inquirer review of the Burrell shows here.

After just a few days off we’ll be heading to The Rotunda this Thursday, September 16 at 8pm, for a free performance by The Nu Band. Mark Whitecage, Roy Campbell, Joe Fonda and Lou Grassi have been working as a quartet since 2000, and subsequent years have seen them release 4 albums while keeping up with national and international live dates. Their 2009 Porter Records release, Lower East Side Blues, is a hard-bop romp that showcases the rich influences and talents of these four veteran jazz players. The last time The Nu Band played Philly was at the Plays and Players Club on August 16, 2000, and we’re very excited for this 10 year reunion show!

On September 9 and 10, Ars Nova Workshop will present two back-to-back nights of performances at Philadelphia Art Alliance to celebrate the 70th birthday of legendary jazz pianist Dave Burrell.  For this very special occasion, Philadelphia-based Burrell will be playing with bassist William Parker and native Philadelphian and multi-instrumentalist (saxophones, flute, clarinets) Sabir Mateen.  These three artists have worked together on several occasions, including with Parker's The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield project.

Since he began making music in the 1960s, Burrell has continued to be one of the most significant composers, pianists and jazz innovators, ceaselessly pushing the limits of the jazz category and sharing his love of music with audiences around the world.  He is one of the most celebrated and influential artists of the post-Coltrane free jazz continuum, and has worked with a long list of jazz luminaries including Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, Sunny Murray, and Sonny Sharrock.  His singular approach to his instrument, namely the way he radically challenges traditional modes of piano playing and expands the instrument's capacities, has influenced contemporary avant-garde artists across genres and disciplines.  Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, whose debt to Burrell is evident through his aggressive and oftentimes improvisational guitar-playing, once stated on the pages of Grand Royal Magazine that Burrell's Echo is the greatest free jazz record of all time.

Please join us tomorrow and Friday night for these two fantastic performances as we celebrate the life and work of this great artist, especially in a space as intimate as the Philadelphia Art Alliance, which will allow us to deeply experience Burrell's superb musicianship. 


In a 2008 interview following the release of the group’s debut album on Intakt Records, Ingrid Laubrock articulates Sleepthief’s sound: “There's a mysterious, dreamlike feel to some of the music—and also you can be torn right out of it. But in a wholly improvised situation it's not only your own imagination, ears, taste buds and emotions that guide your playing, it's also those of the other musicians.”

Since late 2006, saxophonist Laubrock, pianist Liam Noble, and drummer Tom Rainey have been creating sonically diverse music that emphasizes process and space, shifting seamlessly from delicate, minimal phrases to powerful, chaotic blowouts. While producing dense labyrinths of raw sound that unfold unpredictably like an uncensored dream, the three players oftentimes drift out into their own improvisational spaces. Yet, as Laubrock claims, they manage to maintain a robust collectivity, always concurrently open to each other’s movements and the erratic impulses of the dream. The result is an abundant world of sound that invites the listener to wander and encounter its numerous and colorful pathways.

Sleepthief will be performing at Philadelphia Art Alliance tomorrow night, September 7 at 8pm.

Super Feedbacker

Austrian electronic music innovator Fennesz will be kicking off Ars Nova Workshop's 2010-2011 season with his first ever Philadelphia performance on September 5, 8pm at the International House (3701 Chestnut Street).  While Fennesz has not released a solo LP since 2008's Black Sea, this has been an incredibly busy year for the artist who the San Francisco Bay Guardian's Erik Morse called "the most extraordinary ambient composer since Brian Eno."

Thus far, 2010 has seen the release of 7 Fennesz collaborations, archival recordings or reissues: 1) Szampler, a cassette that collects samples used in his previous work, 2) In Stereo, a new album by his ongoing project with Jim O'Rourke and Peter Rehberg, Fenn O'Berg, 3) a newly mixed version of 2001's classic Endless Summer album, 4) On's Something That Has Form and Something That Does Not, an album featuring Fennesz' reworked versions of improvised pieces by Sylvain Chauveau and Steven Hess, 5) Knoxville, a live recording with David Daniell and Tony Buck, 6) Quiet Inlet, a collaborative release out on ECM with electro-acoustic improvisers Food, and 7) a remix of Oneohtrix Point Never's "Returnal," which appears as a B-side on an Editions Mego 7".Aside from proving Fennesz' prolificity, these many projects and releases show how dedicated he is to discovering new sounds and exploring the creative possibilities opened up by fresh collaborations with diverse artists.  In preparation for this very rare North American performance - this Philly show is 1 of only 10 US dates - we'd like to share a few interviews and videos (links below).  Enjoy, and we'll see you on Sunday!

Interview: Wall Street Journal, 2009

Interview: Pitchfork, 2009

Video: Fennesz live at V. Sessions, 2008

ANW 2010-2011

Greetings ANW friends!  As you know, we successfully concluded our 10th season and kicked off the summer in July with spectacular performances by Nels Cline Singers and On Fillmore.  While we're sad that another summer is almost gone, we're incredibly excited to announce the many creative music performances planned for our upcoming season!

If you've kept an eye on our website, as well as our Facebook,, Myspace, and Twitter pages, or if you've seen the fantastic ANW 2010-2011 events poster made by Norwegian noise artist Lasse Marhaug (pictured to the right and also viewable here), you'll know that we've been slowly updating the performance schedule over the past two months.  Featuring creative artists representing a wide cross-section of the rich tradition of, and new directions in, experimental and jazz music - from noise to new music, European improvised music to Free Jazz, solo performances to large ensembles, legendary to emerging artists - here is what Ars Nova Workshop has in store this season.