Gebhard Ullmann, Michael Jefry Stevens, and Joe Fonda, who have had close association in recent years working in the band Conference Call with drummer Matt Wilson, performed in 2001 at a Munich club with drummer Han Bennink. The event turned into a synergistic meeting of the minds. Ullmann appears to be in a pensive mood for this set, released as Variations on a Master Plan. He opens with a soulful bass clarinet flight through Stevens’ melancholy “Quiet,” which establishes a prototype for the band as it digs deeply into the interior of the entire repertoire. Solo improvisations lead to emphatic ensemble segments that built in intensity but always maintain a discreet complexion.
The program features compositions by Ullmann, Stevens, and Fonda, a short Nino Rota piece, plus one spontaneous joint effort. A sense of intimacy pervades the session. Although the group explodes on command with eruptive power, it primarily sends a message of controlled passion where the intricacies of the individual efforts reach out and absorb one into the music as opposed to catapulting one through it.
Ullmann’s approach to improvisation keys the direction of the band. He begins subtly but soon accelerates and motivates the others into open passages where all speak freely in an interlaced language. “Variations on a Theme by Claude Debussy” exemplifies this closeness. Stevens pensively explores Ullmann’s lengthy tune, while Fonda and Bennink contribute a delicately woven backdrop for the serious direction Ullmann negotiates.
Bennink’s normally bombastic style is somewhat restrained in this setting. His jarring punctuation occasionally comes to the fore, but he is never obtrusive. Bennink uses his patented attack mode to complement the group effort, thus he comfortably fits into the scheme of things. He shines with mixed rhythmic patterns on the delightfully quirky “Parlami Di Me.”
Fonda adds spunk to the program and continues to excel in every musical encounter he confronts. He has the unique ability of injecting voice accompaniment over his exquisite bass improvisations without allowing the practice to be an affectation.
The warmth of the performance is pervasive. Tender passages are defined in complicated terms, and aggressive maneuvers are handled deftly, yielding gems of interactive spontaneity. This compelling recording allows one to be challenged anew with each successive listening.