Daily Archives: August 12, 2008

All About Jazz review by Troy Collins

Conference Call – Poetry in Motion (CF 118)
Poetry in Motion is the fifth album from the collective, Conference Call, and their first studio recording since their debut, Final Answer (Soul Note, 2002). The longstanding quartet, together since 1998, features German multi-reedist Gebhard Ullmann, pianist Michael Jefry Stevens, bassist Joe Fonda and recent drummer George Schuller (former drummers include Han Bennink and Matt Wilson).

Throughout the last decade, Conference Call has straddled the tenuous line between free jazz and post bop, drawing on the distinctive writing styles of its members to chart unexplored paths. Each composer’s singular voice is identifiable within the confines of the group’s sound, yet each tune is subtly transformed by the quartet, yielding a thematically cohesive session.

The group’s longevity enriches their highly intuitive rapport. A ten year working relationship between the principal members, Stevens and Fonda share an additional partnership that dates back to 1993, when they formed the ever evolving Fonda/Stevens group.

Ullmann, the group’s sole horn player, is a vivacious and dynamic stylist who invests serene ballads with the same heartfelt conviction as tempestuous free-form workouts. His sinuous soprano cadences, brawny tenor testimonials, and intervallic bass clarinet leaps offer a range of emotion.

Over the course of seven distinctive tunes, the quartet’s inside/outside approach invokes the halcyon days of the ’60s New Thing. Fonda’s inclusions demonstrate the quartet’s dynamic range; “The Path” is a restrained ballad of mellifluous tenderness, while “Next Step” is the inverse. Born in darkness, the tune gains brisk momentum with Fonda and Schuller’s roiling palpitations, which fuel a swirling vortex of sound courtesy of Ullmann’s caterwauling bass clarinet and Stevens’ spiky piano clusters.

Much of the quartet’s brio can be attributed to Ullmann, whose tunes open and close the album, each offering a rugged lyrical quality. “The Shining Star” sets the stage with an air of fervent expressionism, as Ullmann and Stevens invoke the seminal collaborations of Archie Shepp and Dave Burrell. The closing “Desert… Bleue… East” was prominently featured on Ullmann’s recent New Basement Research (Soul Note, 2007). An episodic deconstructed blues, the sublime polyphony of the aforementioned three-horn version is recast as a cinematic tone poem.

The title track and “Quirky Waltz” are Stevens’ contributions—harmonically astute explorations bolstered by unorthodox structures and edgy lyricism—the latter being a showcase for his effervescent pianism. Culled from Schuller’s recent Keith Jarrett tribute, Like Before, Somewhat After (Playscape, 2008), the drummer’s sole offering is the sonorous “Back to School,” a deceptively simple folk melody that blossoms into a plangent feature for Ullmann’s expressive tenor.

Marking the tenth anniversary of this venerable ensemble, this session offers a marked departure from their usual live sets with brilliant studio sound that captures every nuance of their expansive abilities. A remarkably varied and rewarding listen, Poetry in Motion is one of Conference Call’s finest offerings.

Free Jazz review by Stef

Conference Call – Poetry In Motion (CF 118)
This is Conference Call’s second studio release out of a total of five CDs, and it also celebrates the quartet’s 10th anniversary, if you allow for the changes in drummers (from Matt Wilson over Han Bennink to George Schuller), and especially “Spirals : The Berlin Concert” is easy to recommend. The band consists of Gebhard Ullmann on reeds, Michael Jefry Stevens on piano, Joe Fonda on bass and George Schuller on drums, four musicians who’ve played in numerous bands and line-ups, and who clearly feel extremely comfortable together, both as performers and as composers. This CD has two compositions by each band member, except for one by Schuller, and still the music has an incredible unity in its variation. This is free jazz, for sure, but when I first listened to it, I was amazed by their daring mainstream influences (and yes, I find that’s courageous at times, it requires openness of mind). “The Path” and “Back To School” for instance start off in a clear mainstream mood, melody and structure, but the musicians’ sensitivities and breadth of scope are such that these are just the backbones for wonderful improvisations, which clearly go beyond the mainstream without losing the harmonic basis of the tune. Especially Schuller’s “Back To School” brings some fantastic interplay and wonderful free soloing by Ullmann, for a melody which is extremely joyful in an overall sad environment, quite a compositional feat. It is followed by Jefry Stevens’ dark and beautiful “Quirky Waltz”, on which all four musicians push their instrumental skills to the limits : the bass clarinet is deep and low, alternated with light dancing, the piano haunting, the bass eery, and the percussion functional and sounding at times as glasses and bottles being collected in a bar. And you may expect anything from this band, on the last track “Desert … Bleue … East”, a calm and free composition moves into the most energetic free environment and then back into bluesy piano notes with a flute sounding from a great distance in the background, and despite all the changes, it still is undoubtebly the same piece. It just illustrates that these four musicians know what music is about : powerful emotional expressiveness combined with musical inventiveness and group interplay. But the centerpiece of the album is Joe Fonda’s “Next Step”, which brings a repetitive hypnotic African rhythm for bass and drums, offering a great dialogue between piano and sax, that evolves quite brilliantly together with the rhythmic part, ending in an energetic bass solo. Highly recommended.