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Conference Call: Evolution of a Burning Bush

By Published: January 17, 2011
AAJ: Do you have any kind of formula?

JF: The formula is that everybody brings their composition in, but nobody has the right to direct it 100 percent. The band shapes it. I had an interesting experience at our last recording session, and my brother Michael straightened me out immediately. I was upset because the composition wasn't working the way I wanted it. And I was communicating that. And Michael said, "Joe, stop! This is Conference Call... If you want your composition played a certain way, and only a certain way, you've got to start your own band. In Conference Call, everybody's allowed to shape the music." And right away I put that aside, and I said, "Thank you brother, you're right." And George came up with an idea that solved the problem for that particular composition, in that recording session, that I couldn't have come up with myself. That's how it works with Conference Call.

MJS: The great thing about everybody in the band is that they're very strong composers, as well as players, and everybody has there own way of composing, as George was saying. And it's very hard to find a band where all the members have a unique sound of composing. And the way we've learned to shape the music is to allow each member equal say in how the music is formed.

AAJ: The three of you: you're the rhythm section, strictly speaking. Is it hard giving yourselves equal voice to Gebhard, when Gebhard is really the loudest or most noticeable instrument—is that a challenge to keep up with him and be as voluble and as integral a part of the band?

JF: No, because even though he's the saxophone, each of us has equal input playing-wise. Just because he's the horn player—the band has a collective mentality, not a rhythm section/soloist mentality. And that's another like-mindedness. You it doesn't matter if you're playing saxophone, piano, bass or drums—or George is playing his little flute whistle! It all has equal importance and presence and is incorporated in this kind of way.

AAJ: Joe, one of my favorite compositions of yours is "Three," the political number from Spirals (482 Music, 2004). Now that sounds to me like sheer energy music, like it was just a spontaneous improvisation. What makes it your composition, allowing you to put your name to it?

JF: That was a piece that was happening at a point in time when something was going on politically, and I had to express that, and luckily my band members were OK with that. It was my idea. There might have been a few melodic fragments, but I came up with the concept for the text, and I was the one who was talking about these three individuals who said that Iraq had to go down a long time ago.

GS: You've got to come up with something about The Tea Party now!

JF: Everybody put a lot in because it had more to do with the energy and expression of the political anger and frustration that all of us were feeling at the time.

AAJ: You said in the introduction to that song that you didn't feel you were going to reverse any policies with it. What was your purpose in writing that song? Was it just a venting?

JF: To express what was going on in our life at that time. When Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus
1922 - 1979
bass, acoustic
wrote "Remember Rockefeller at Attica" [Changes One (Atlantic, 1974)] he didn't change the fact that Attica's this place where these men were mowed down like they were nothing. But you know Mingus had to write a composition to express his feelings about what happened at that point in time, and he's alive on this planet—and he was upset! And rightfully so. So, the concept is the same, for me. Even though I didn't change a thing and Mingus didn't change the reality of Attica—but man, you put a piece of music out into the world that expressed a feeling and concern, and anger about what was going on his world.

AAJ: You did, too, Joe.

JF: Well, Thank you. That's what the idea was. And by the way, I'm still angry.

GS: I want to pipe in: we were mostly traveling in Europe around March 2003. We had to address the audience in some way. We had to apologize. And in a way that was our humble way of doing it...You get a little lonely sometimes when you go over there and suddenly your country is trying to do its global dominance. It's complicated out there. Anyway, nobody actually threw tomatoes at us, or accosted us. But it's important to express opinions.

AAJ: Back to your style, and the quality of your music. I notice that your—there's a sort of static quality to your work. It develops and unfolds almost at a glacial pace—not the actual tempo, but the themes and the motifs. It makes me think of those films where a flower blossoms over a period of several days—where you see a very slow process in minute detail. How do you experience your own playing when you're performing?

MJS: The way I experience my music is as a composer, so I'm always trying to take whatever the musical ideas are, whether they're predetermined through composition, or spontaneous through improvisation. I'm always trying to develop them in as much detail and variation as possible.

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