The 11th album of their storied 18 year career, Memphis is only the fourth studio recording of the venerable Fonda/Stevens Group, making this release a delightful surprise. Co-led by bassist Joe Fonda and pianist Michael Jefry Stevens, the veteran quartet is rounded out by trumpeter Herb Robertson and drummer Harvey Sorgen. Boasting a collective resume that includes stints with Tim Berne, Anthony Braxton and Dave Douglas, they draw on a wealth of innovative collaborations for their own idiosyncratic explorations.
Splitting songwriting duties, Fonda and Stevens contribute five tunes apiece to the session. Sharing an aesthetic similarity born of their authors' longstanding rapport, these elaborate compositions flow seamlessly from one to another. Skirting the edges of tradition, they employ ambiguous harmonies, modulate time signatures, and incorporate extended techniques without ever completely abandoning conventional forms.
The tender ballad "For My Brother" features Robertson's Harmon-muted horn in a rare Milesian mode, initially suggesting that Stevens might be the more lyrical composer, yet Fonda's subtly dramatic "The Path" offers a bold melody no less romantic. Conversely, Stevens' rousing modal work-out, "Break Song," is as subtly tumultuous as the meandering detours of Fonda's "Looking For The Lake."
A generational link between seminal trumpet innovators (Lester Bowie, Bill Dixon), and the new wave (Taylor Ho Bynum, Nate Wooley) Robertson reveals a wealth of sonic surprises, from the hallucinatory muted slurs of "In The Whitecage" to the blistering tonal distortions of "Yes This Is It!." Despite occasional detours into expressive atonality, Stevens' incisive comping and pirouetting filigrees are decidedly more traditional than Robertson's effusive brass explorations. Providing an unwavering harmonic center, Stevens keeps the quartet rooted.
Eschewing convention, Fonda and Sorgen serve as active participants in the group's dynamic interactions, far removed from their traditional roles as mere timekeepers. Their roiling interplay on such fare as "In The Whitecage" and "Looking For The Lake" is as wily and unpredictable as Robertson's surreal exhortations and Stevens' intervallic runs, while their sweeping pulse on the jazz waltz "Changing Tides" ebbs with the majestic fluidity of its title.
Knitting modernist abstraction to the music's oldest antecedents, the blues-based "There Is A Very Fine Line Between Your Life And Mine" and "Memphis Ramble" feature chanted vocals from the group, conceptually bringing the music full circle.
Imbued with excellent group interplay and an expansive approach towards jazz tradition, Memphis presents the Fonda/Stevens Group in an intimate studio environment with the sonic clarity they rightfully deserve.
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Personnel: Joe Fonda: bass, composer; Michael Jefry Stevens: piano, composer; Herb Robertson: trumpet; Harvey Sorgen: drums.