Michael Jefry Stevens: What About...?; Memphis; A Scent in Motion; Remembering the Future
Harvey Sorgen-Steve Rust-Michael Jefry Stevens
The current musical climate being what it is, the moniker of "Conference Call" for a far-flung jazz quartet is quite apt. Creative musicians might call a number of different locales home, and the idea of a working band living within the same zip code is something that's very twentieth century. Conference Call have been together since 1998 and recorded six albums, which is no small feat considering that the group is spread across two continents. All four members of the group are extremely busybassist Joe Fonda leads his own groups in New York as does drummer George Schuller (brother of bassist Ed and son of composer Gunther). Pianist Michael Jefry Stevens has called Memphis home since joining the faculty of Rhodes College in 2006. Reedman Gebhard Ullmann splits his time between New York and Berlin, and is active across the fire music and chamber-jazz spectrum.
What About finds Conference Call performing live at Krakow's Alchemia in 2007. While the instrumentation and scope are different, the closest analog to this quartet might be Circle, the early 1970s super-group of pianist Chick Corea, reedman Anthony Braxton, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Barry Altschul (although Conference Call has lasted far longer). Particularly in their live performances, composition and structure grow out of collective improvisation and pieces seem to segue into one another, albeit in a clearly defined fashion. In "After Like," the two-part group improvisation that starts off disc one, the quartet's rattling insistence coupled with ergs of clean post-Coltrane tenor align with the Schlippenbach Quartet, also nodding to the stone-skipping rhythmic language of post-bop. Because of his penchant for sparse romanticism and a hunt-and-peck, searching quality to Stevens' pianism, comparisons might abound between his work and Paul Bley or Andrew Hill. However, his chordal sketches are more definitive than ambiguous, pushing the beat rather than lying behind or around it. In a flash, clanking left hand and the woody flecks of Fonda and Ullmann's Dolphy-tuned bass clarinet can let up into profound, airy and almost sweet lyricism or stripped-down East European folk forms (both seem at play in "What About the Future?"). In a way, the conference is not only about the location of the group's members, but the convergence of stylistic approaches.
Stevens and Fonda have been collaborating regularly since the late 1980s, and Memphis is the eleventh disc under the Fonda-Stevens Group moniker. They've held fairly steady as a quartet for some time, featuring drummer Harvey Sorgen and trumpeter Herb Robertson (though reedman Mark Whitecage and trumpeter Paul Smoker have also made appearances). Bursts of stop-time ascension and descension mark Fonda's opening homage to Whitecage, pizzicato strum encircling Stevens' ringing, Monkish stabs and spindly progressions as Sorgen keeps a dry whip-crack behind Robertson's bent wahs and flutters. Stevens' "For my Brother" explores a delicate, romantic calm that's almost filmic, though high arco bass harmonics and Sorgen's patter and rustle keep the tune from charting too languid waters. Robertson is muted, distant and shaky while piano, bass pluck and snare gradually pick apart and rearrange mood. Fonda's "Looking for the Lake" recalls his 1981 Alacra LP of the same name, its initial lilting modal call reminiscent of a later Wayne Shorter line, sketchy and quickly opening up into loosely-grounded group improvisation in a seesaw of unison and sputtering parallelism. But the foursome espouse a sense of humor and theatricality, toowitness the group chants of "There is a Very Fine Line between Your Life and Mine" and "Memphis Ramble."
The Sorgen-Rust-Stevens trio joins bassist Steve Rust with Stevens and Sorgen; this aggregation is just one of a handful of different piano trios that the pianist participates in, and A Scent in Motion is their fourth date together (though it was actually recorded in 1994). "Camco" is a free improvisation that moves from a mean, Valdo Williams-like drive on a simple arpeggio into fractured pointillism, Rust and Sorgen tapping, tugging and thrashing at wood and skin. The recording itself has a nice, raw quality that captures the in-the-red moments of the trio perfectly. That's not to say that they operate only in arenas of contained violence; rather, clouds of tonal imprecision and cottony murk inhabit Stevens' work on "Cpac," in skewed opposition to the playful agitation of Sorgen's toms and Rust's snaky plucked outlines and subtonal growl. For those in search of piano trios that reflect on both the "inside" and "outside" of creative music, A Scent in Motion is an excellent notch in the discography.
Danish guitarist Jon Hemmersam has collaborated with Stevens since the late 1990s, including a trio with cellist Karen Valeur called the Jazzic Trio. If classical poise and open music are the two poles by which most of Hemmersam's music operates, Remembering the Futurejoining the guitar-piano pair as it does with free stalwarts like bassist Ken Filiano, saxophonist Dave Liebman and drummer Rakalam Bob Moseshews to the latter. "Passion," the second part of the opening suite, recalls the Sunrise Studio days, Liebman in full tenor tilt with the dry, burbling accents of Moses a constant active force. Muted piano guts, motoring pluck and Hemmersam's flinty, ringing clusters coagulate in midrange improvisational areas and separate into skeletal duos and trios. Stevens' solo is characteristic light, wistful Evans-nescence, sketched by Moses' cymbal work and leading into a pretty and insistent extrapolation from Filiano. Hemmersam has had a lengthy working relationship with guitarist-composer Dom Minasi, so the dedication of "Dom's Song" is fitting. This offering fuses frantic dustbowl and Iberian coils with a syrupy, unsettling group plod pierced by trilling soprano and piano, and closing in a near nod to "Goodbye Porkpie Hat." For what appears to be a first time aggregation, Remembering the Future is a fine slab of egalitarian group music.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: Disc 1: After Like Part 1; After Like Part 2; What About the Future?; Circle; Conference Call. Disc Two: After Like Part 3; Could This Be a Polka?; Litmus; Translucent Tones (Gestalt in Three); What About...?
Personnel: Gebhard Ullmann: tenor and soprano saxophones, bass clarinet; Michael Jefry Stevens: piano; Joe Fonda: bass; George Schuller: drums.
Tracks: In the Whitecage; For my Brother; Looking for the Lake; Changing Tides; The Path; Yes This is It!; There is a Very Fine Line between Your Life and Mine; Whole Majesty; Memphis Ramble; Break Song.
Personnel: Joe Fonda: bass; Michael Jefry Stevens: piano; Harvey Sorgen: drums; Herb Robertson: trumpet.
A Scent in Motion
Tracks: Sentry; Fairy Tale; Camco; Cpac; Freedom of Choice; Magic Meadow; Starter Set; Something You Said; Spirit Song.
Personnel: Harvey Sorgen: drums; Steve Rust: bass; Michael Jefry Stevens: piano.
Remembering the Future
Tracks: Love; Passion; Understanding; Timeless Waltz; Dom's Song; Sprint; For my Brother; Epilogue.
Personnel: Jon Hemmersam: electric and acoustic guitars; Dave Liebman: soprano and tenor saxophones, wooden flute; Michael Jefry Stevens: piano; Ken Filiano: bass; Rakalam Bob Moses: drums.