Synergy is critical to the success of any band, yet Conference Call has developed the art of interaction into a fine science. Gebhard Ullmann, Michael Jefry Stevens, Joe Fonda, and Matt Wilson have been playing together for a number of years, which helps explain why their music congeals unerringly into a solidified whole. Everybody is a star soloist with this band, yet their combined output molds itself into a complete package braided together by group empathy.
All four musicians are also composers; the program contains at least two tunes by each. The music rides freely and easily on a crack train capable of veering off at reduced speed to alter the mood swings without interrupting the momentum. For example, things get hopping on Wilson’s “Final Answer,” yet the band glides easily into a mournful, bluesy mood on “Gone Too Soon,” Fonda’s dedication piece to Thomas Chapin. The performance provides frequent alterations in tempo, an occasional touch of humor, and a solid sense of unity.
Ullmann causes a river of sound to flow through either the soprano saxophone or the bass clarinet. His inspired improvisations are thoughtfully constructed without the need for overt outbursts, yet he cranks the action up several notches frequently in a subtle way before one realizes the fires are burning at higher temperature. The music simply oozes out in a continuous flood of logical phrases.
Fonda’s ambitious bass playing has contagious characteristics. He not only builds his extensive solos into definitive statements of the art form, he anticipates his next spontaneous expression and mouths the freelance part in accompaniment of himself. Wilson adds flavor and spice on drums. Without being obvious, he provides the impetus through his cushioned contributions to the group context.
Stevens pulls the band together with his piano support. He is not a percussive player, yet he demonstrates a take-charge attitude during his solo opportunities as well as when he is directing ensemble action with well-constructed countercurrents.
Like a fine watch, Conference Call runs at peak performance throughout the set. The four members come together as a tight unit capable of producing music with looseness and agility. They form a supple group that swings in free time.
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Personnel: Gebhard Ullmann-bass clarinet, soprano saxophone; Michael Jefry Stevens- piano; Joe Fonda-
bass; Matt Wilson-drums. Recorded: May 16, 2000, Brooklyn, NY.