TRAVELLIN' LIGHT
Michael Formanek Answers
20 Questions About The Road
Michael Formanek is a composer, bassist and bandleader. He teaches and directs the Jazz Orchestra at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. For more information, consult www.amibotheringyou.com.
Bill Shoemaker: What is the most difficult airline to deal with in terms of instruments and equipment?

Michael Formanek: Well, to be honest, none have consistently been all that great when it comes to instruments and equipment. Sometimes you’ll have a few good experiences with an airline and then the next flight you take you’ll get someone that either has no idea how things are done, or want to punish you for choosing to be a musician instead of an airline ticket clerk. That said; my single worst experience with airline check in with musical equipment (i.e. my bass) was with British Air. They seemed a little better the last time I had to fly with them.

Which airline has the worst economy seating and food?

My worst memory of horrible economy seating was with Japan Airlines, more because of a slightly less super-sized population that needs to be shuttled around by plane. Their business class section is a lot more comfortable though. As far as airline food- take your pick! None of the American carriers have great food in economy, but I’ve been served some snack items on Iberia (the Spanish airline) that I would barely be able to identify as food if not for the white bread it was sandwiched between.

Which airport is craziest for making connecting flights?

Internationally: London Heathrow and Paris Charles De Gaulle are the worst for connections, unless you have about a week in between flights. They got you taking trains, buses, camels, whatever, then you ending walking another couple of miles and going through security about five more times before you get to your gate. Heathrow also waits until the last possible minute to post your gate number, then as soon as it goes on the board it’s got flashing lights saying the flights is boarding and to get your jet-lagged ass over there now or they’ll give your seat away. Domestically: Chicago O’Hare is the worst. At least from my experience

What is the most important thing you ever forgot to pack?

The music for the tour I was flying to join. It wasn’t the end of the world because I emailed ahead to the leader when I realized it. Other than that I’ve forgotten things like power adapters, bass rosin, extra strength Bayer. Stuff like that.

What is your worst lost baggage story?

Knock on wood I haven’t had too many horror stories with lost bags. I’ve been with a lot of people that have lost everything. I’ve been pretty lucky. One flight from Israel to Italy was kind of bad because my bass didn’t make it, but it was mainly bad because we had a really hard time getting out of Israel. It was with Mike Mainieri’s band with Peter Erskine and George Garzone. George and I hung out all night in Tel Aviv and we had a 5AM lobby call. We got back to the hotel and basically went right down to the lobby and waited for the driver who had taken all of our gear with him the night before after the concert (of course we were guaranteed that the driver was the most responsible human being who ever lived, and was actually being considered for the Prime Minister’s job). Peter was getting really agitated and finally kind of blew up, but he did manage to get things moving because somebody made a call and found that the driver had fallen asleep at his Mother’s house with all our stuff in the van parked in front. We had to race to the airport and blaze through check in and security, which is no small feat in Israel. When we got to Italy the bass had not made it, so we had to wait around for a couple of hours until is showed up on the next flight, which in Italy just means that it’s lunch time and you’re never too far away from a nice pasta and a glass of wine. I just remembered another pretty funny lost bass story, but we’ll save that one for next time.

What country hassles musicians the most at customs and passport checks?

We used to have a really tough time going in and out of Canada, believe it or not. It seems to have gotten better in the last few years due to some changes in the laws there I think. England can be rough because they think that we’re all going to move there and try and take advantage of the booming jazz scene. Otherwise it’s kind of hit or miss with border crossings. I had a Swiss border guard try and tear my passport apart because he thought that the photo might have been altered. After that every border guard had to check it out because the Swiss guy made such a mess of the passport. The kicker was that I was only 2 years into a 10 year passport at that point, and I’d be damned if I was going to buy a new passport before my time was up. I’m sure that the first body cavity search or mention of Guantanamo Bay detention center would have changed my mind real quick!

Which city has the worst cab drivers?

Istanbul, without a doubt. Ask Marty Ehrlich.

What is the best hotel that a presenter has provided for you?

I’ve been very fortunate to stay in some really nice hotels over the years. The one that sticks out right now for some reason is this beautiful hotel in Perugia, in Italy. I don’t remember if it was the Grand Hotel, or something, but it overlooked the whole valley below and was situated really nicely on top of the hill. The reason I remember it is that I had to leave early the next morning to bring my bass case to Zurich while the rest of the band had the day off in Perugia. I had to be driven to Bologna, then flew to Zurich, where I had to check the bass case at the airport, sleep in a hotel at the airport, and then take the train to Munich the next day to meet the band. It wasn’t necessarily the nicest hotel, but at that moment it sure felt like it.

Do you travel with a laptop or a PDA? If so, how many times a day do you check your e-mail?

I used to carry a laptop, but that’s was too much trouble. I carry a PDA now, and I check email whenever I’m bored, which can be about every five or six minutes when I’m traveling.

Do you listen to music on the road? If so, what device do you use?

I travel with an iPod now, and I have a pretty bizarre playlist that I use for traveling.

Do you do your own laundry on the road?

I used to, and I will if I have to. In the old days we did what Joey Baron used to call “be-bop laundry”, which required soap, a lot of towels, and one of those big radiators to be really successful. Otherwise you might end up repacking a lot of wet jeans and underwear which is not only really heavy, but also tends to get moldy smelling if you don’t get them out of your bag quickly.

What is your most nightmarish sound check to date?

A club in Vienna with Bloodcount where these sound guys had to build the equipment from scratch. The drums were so big that Jim Black had to use the smallest tom-tom for a bass drum, and I think he must have used a tambourine for a snare. The sound guys were cursing me out in a Viennese dialect because I made them rebuild the bass amp so that it didn’t sound like a toilet flushing every time I played my open E string.

What is the scariest food that has been laid out for you backstage?

Anything that gets laid out backstage can be scary for a variety of reasons. That stuff tends to sit around for quite a while, and unless they give you peanuts, or fruit it gets scarier as the night goes on. I do have a recollection of a promoter holding up a big tray of cold cuts one time in Uster, Switzerland and the whole band gave it a resounding thumbs down, and made the promoter take us to a restaurant. We’d just gotten of a nine hour train ride, and the guys made us take the commuter train from Zurich at rush hour. He didn’t have any promoter credits left after that.

What are your three favorite venues?

I don’t play there often but I love the Village Vanguard. After that, whichever cities have the best restaurants for late after-gig meals?
I don’t usually eat after the gig much these days, but other than New York the larger Italian cities would be high on the list. Although it’s been a lot of years now, I remember some amazing meals of steaks and incredible red wine in Buenos Aries at one or two in the morning after a concert.

Which cities have the best after-hours sessions?

I don’t know. You tell me, and I’ll go somewhere else! I’m not too into after hours sessions. I’m into after hours whatever else, and if it ends up with some playing; great. I hate feeling obliged to sit in at some session: especially after playing a full gig of meaningful music. That may not sound gracious, but that’s how I feel about it.

What is the best city that closes down too early?

New York. At least these days it seems to. Maybe it’s just my perception of it now, but it really seems like a bedroom community compared to what it was like when I moved there in the late seventies. Many smaller towns close early even if they have to happen to have a jazz concert from time to time. It doesn’t bother me too much. It bothers me when a hotel won’t keep their bar open for you when you have a bunch of musicians staying there. That just doesn’t seem right.

What is the best locale to have a day off?

Somewhere I can go fishing. I used to often carry some tackle with me for days off. I’ve gone trout fishing in the middle of Bloodcount and Uri Caine tours in Europe, as well as saltwater and Salmon fishing on days off. These days I’m happy to have a nice room that I can stay in and read or listen to music and some nice places to walk around it. I just got back from Copenhagen, and I love have days off there. It’s a beautiful city, and it’s great to walk around it.

What is your cure for jet lag?

Sunlight and denial. I stay outside as much as possible to remind myself what time of day it is. I stay up as late as I can the first night in a new time zone and try to go to sleep at a “normal” time based on their clock. The only other thing I do, which is kind of weird but I refuse to change the time on my watch. I guess it keeps me alert, because I have to do the math every time I look at it.

What is your best tip for the novice?

Come up with your own bunch of answers based on your own experiences. That should give you something to work toward and look forward to.