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Interviews

Conference Call: Evolution of a Burning Bush

By Published: January 17, 2011
AAJ: I also see you as "thieving magpies," where you'll have a lot of different styles, just touches of different styles. It's very nice, that quality that you have... You must have a great knowledge of jazz, the history of jazz—and even composed music—to be able to do that.

MJS: I'm trying to learn as much as I can. I certainly have more knowledge now than I did 20 years ago, but I'm still learning... What's important about this band is, we really like each other, we don't have any personal problems, we respect each other. Everybody has their own experiences. If you talk about Gebhard, he comes from this European classical tradition, and he had these rock bands in Germany; then you have George, who came from this musical family, and he was a bandleader, and he's still a bandleader; and then there's Joe with his blues influences and his father. And then you come to me, and my parents were dancers.

GS: It would be nice to trace back all the roots and experiences and influences, sort of like a tree, and try to figure that out for each of us, and then put that up on the wall—it would be interesting to see what makes each of us tick, why did we come to this place. There would be thousands of things that you'd have to throw in there.

AAJ: Then there's the evolution of the band itself—that's another sort of growth—your growth together...

JF: I got something I want to throw in here real quick. For me, of all the projects I'm involved in, this band is the most consistent, in terms of its performance. The band is on, consistently. And I really appreciate and respect that, because I strive for that in my own musical life. I don't care how tired I am, how many days I've been on the road, whether I've eaten or not, I get up there, and I don't care if there's only two days left on the tour, I still give 950 percent of my heart and soul every time, and I've striven for that my whole life. This band is the project I'm involved in that manifests that attitude more than any other. It's why I think about Conference Call more than other projects. I can count on this band to be there. If I've got a gig at The Village Vanguard, I tell you Conference Call will be the band that I call, because they're going to get up there and do it. I won't have anybody who's complaining or tired, or drank to much gin in the afternoon. Conference Call is a consistent band when it comes to performing, and it's reflected in the CDs, too. Every CD that we've done has been consistently strong.

And Gebhard, I think he pulls us in this direction. I've played with a lot of musicians, and Gebhard is one of the most consistent musicians I've ever played with. And I need that in my life, and Conference Call brings it, and Gebhard brings it as an individual.

AAJ: Your work can be very mellow and dry at some points, like a white wine, and then it can get intense and turn into classic '60s energy music, and go into post-bop or swing. How do you calibrate these changes, and what inspires you? What are your cues?

JF: Musicians use the entire continuum. It's that like-mindedness again. The band has, all of us have a strong awareness of the entire continuum of the music. So all of that is used in the vocabulary. We leave nothing out. We use everything from what came at the turn of the last century, Count Basie
Count Basie
Count Basie
1904 - 1984
piano
through bebop through swing through Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
piano
, through Schoenberg through Markus Stockhausen. We have an awareness of that, and I think that's how we weave through that. And my music, I even draw from folk music. I'm a James Taylor
James Taylor
b.1948
composer/conductor
fanatic! You can find James Taylor influence in my music. Neil Young
Neil Young
Neil Young
b.1945
composer/conductor
...I put on Cecil Taylor
Cecil Taylor
Cecil Taylor
b.1929
piano
, Stockhausen, and then I put on Neil Young!

GS: Dynamics is also an important element that we bring in. When people think of free jazz they think of this frantic, angry, volcanic kind of music. And there's a lot of beautiful free jazz, either pointillistic, or just very tame—or it can be churning below the surface and you're not sure what sounds are coming out. And I think we all dig that, too: coming from nowhere and then exploding, or exploding first and then just going to nowhere. We understand how to shape our improvs. Sometimes we go off on a tangent and maybe one person takes over. I think more than often we use our huge ears and try to navigate all our experiences coming out. It's a process that is very enjoyable.

MJS: Gebhard's not here talking with us now, but he's such a major influence on what we do. What he wants to hear—he has a very clear idea of what he wants to hear and what he doesn't what to hear... And there's always been this struggle between myself and him because I'm the most romantic of the band, in terms of wanting just pretty melodies, and in the beginning Gebhard was interested in getting this merger of different styles into the music. In the beginning, he told me and Joe, "I don't really want to swing." Now, being together for 12 or 13 years there is more of a balance, but at the beginning his ideas were very powerful.

GC: Michael, you're so romantic, but you know I've never received any flowers from you...

MJS: Well, you know I'm married, George. That's the problem!


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