Poetry in Motion is the fifth album from the collective, Conference Call, and their first studio recording since their debut, Final Answer (Soul Note, 2002). The longstanding quartet, together since 1998, features German multi-reedist Gebhard Ullmann, pianist Michael Jefry Stevens, bassist Joe Fonda and recent drummer George Schuller (former drummers include Han Bennink and Matt Wilson).
Throughout the last decade, Conference Call has straddled the tenuous line between free jazz and post bop, drawing on the distinctive writing styles of its members to chart unexplored paths. Each composer's singular voice is identifiable within the confines of the group's sound, yet each tune is subtly transformed by the quartet, yielding a thematically cohesive session.
The group's longevity enriches their highly intuitive rapport. A ten year working relationship between the principal members, Stevens and Fonda share an additional partnership that dates back to 1993, when they formed the ever evolving Fonda/Stevens group.
Ullmann, the group's sole horn player, is a vivacious and dynamic stylist who invests serene ballads with the same heartfelt conviction as tempestuous free-form workouts. His sinuous soprano cadences, brawny tenor testimonials, and intervallic bass clarinet leaps offer a range of emotion.
Over the course of seven distinctive tunes, the quartet's inside/outside approach invokes the halcyon days of the '60s New Thing. Fonda's inclusions demonstrate the quartet's dynamic range; "The Path" is a restrained ballad of mellifluous tenderness, while "Next Step" is the inverse. Born in darkness, the tune gains brisk momentum with Fonda and Schuller's roiling palpitations, which fuel a swirling vortex of sound courtesy of Ullmann's caterwauling bass clarinet and Stevens' spiky piano clusters.
Much of the quartet's brio can be attributed to Ullmann, whose tunes open and close the album, each offering a rugged lyrical quality. "The Shining Star" sets the stage with an air of fervent expressionism, as Ullmann and Stevens invoke the seminal collaborations of Archie Shepp and Dave Burrell. The closing "Desert... Bleue... East" was prominently featured on Ullmann's recent New Basement Research (Soul Note, 2007). An episodic deconstructed blues, the sublime polyphony of the aforementioned three-horn version is recast as a cinematic tone poem.
The title track and "Quirky Waltz" are Stevens' contributionsharmonically astute explorations bolstered by unorthodox structures and edgy lyricismthe latter being a showcase for his effervescent pianism. Culled from Schuller's recent Keith Jarrett tribute, Like Before, Somewhat After (Playscape, 2008), the drummer's sole offering is the sonorous "Back to School," a deceptively simple folk melody that blossoms into a plangent feature for Ullmann's expressive tenor.
Marking the tenth anniversary of this venerable ensemble, this session offers a marked departure from their usual live sets with brilliant studio sound that captures every nuance of their expansive abilities. A remarkably varied and rewarding listen, Poetry in Motion is one of Conference Call's finest offerings.
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Personnel: Gebhard Ullmann: soprano and tenor saxophones, bass clarinet; Michael Jefry Stevens: piano; Joe Fonda: double bass; George Schuller: drums, percussion and hammer whistle.