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Conference Call: Evolution of a Burning Bush

Gordon Marshall By

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Conference Call can be as balanced and beautiful as an intricate organism, and just as soon rage with holy fire. The quartet—consisting of saxophonist Gebhard Ullmann, bassist Joe Fonda, drummer George Schuller and pianist Michael Jefry Stevens—perpetually weaves in all three dimensions, as well as in time—its own, and music history's.

Together since the late '90s, the group is going strong, burning away but losing no energy, relating jazz past and political past to hard and fast present moments—and spiriting these, in turn, into a future history—forging sound new documents bound to have permanent place in the history of music. Whether that sound is a cry from the streets, a cry of a people, or the cry of a sole saxophone, Conference Call captures it, reporting straight from the scene of stage or studio.

All About Jazz: Now I know you are from different places—and calling from different places. What are they?

George Schuller: I'm in Brooklyn, New York, the Kensington area.

Joe Fonda: I'm in Manhattan.

Michael Jefry Stevens: I'm in Memphis, Tennessee.

AAJ: Is that where you grew up?

MJS: I've been living there for the last 8-1/2 years. I'm from New York—Queens, originally.

AAJ: Let's start with you, Joe. How did you get into jazz, and into Conference Call?

JF: My early jazz influences come from my father, and my mother. They were both musicians. My mother was a vocalist and my father was a trumpet player during the swing era so my first jazz gigs and jazz exposure came from my father who invited me to play with him, back when I was in high school. And from there—

AAJ: What years were you in high school?

JF: I graduated in '73. I went to Berklee College of Music for two years. So, I began my jazz adventures in 1973, starting at Berklee. From there I met all kinds of wonderful people and moved into the career where I am now.

As far as Conference Call goes, I think Michael was the first one to connect with Gebhard. Michael and I were touring in Berlin, and Gebhard would come down to hear the Fonda/Stevens group, and Michael started a communication with him about maybe doing something. Michael and Gebhard had asked me to get involved. Gebhard had started coming to New York at that time and Michael was living in Brooklyn, we were playing at his house, looking for different drummers. Actually I had called Matt Wilson, at the very beginning, because I knew Matt. And so it started with Matt.

MJS: I had been doing some playing with Phil Haynes, who basically got me straight. And Phil and I were just starting playing Europe at that time, the late '90s, and Phil said, "You should contact my friend Gebhard who's doing a lot of the same things you're doing." When Gebhard came to New York he called me up and he came over my apartment in Brooklyn. We played a little bit and we decided we wanted to start a band, and I thought about recruiting Joe, who I'd been playing with since 1984, with Mark Whitecage. So that's how that started, and we tried various drummers. Matt Wilson was first.

JF: Then we went through Han Bennink, we had Gerry Hemingway on the tour, and eventually we found George—and George is here to stay! Right, George?

GS: I think so...I could clear that up about the drummers in the band: I did come after Matt, who was in the chair for two years—and then Han Bennink was in there for one tour. And then I got the call from Joe, to come down—I guess to do a session. They wanted to feel me out, like an audition. And they were getting ready to do this tour, in Canada, but actually it was just one date. That was the famous September, 2001 tour that was basically going from one Midwest town to another.

So that was my first introduction into Conference Call. I mean, I was thrown into the fire, literally. And these guys just brought something out of me—at least if not for that tour, the next time playing with Michael and Geb' and Joe. It was a turning point in my career, joining these guys and knowing, "Hey, I moved to New York, specifically for this to happen." Because I was living in Boston for many years. Not that I toiled there or wasn't getting any opportunities, but when I did make the move to New York by '95, it took me a few years to find like-minded musicians and get the chance to play with such strong musicians and composers. They took me in without too much complaint...

AAJ: What makes them like-minded?

GS: I think we're all coming from basically the same school, it's a huge school of improvisers and composers. And finding that well of creativity that brings composition and improvisation together, we're all trying to figure that out as a group. We bring in compositions, and when we bring in ideas, we all have this basic idea of how things should happen and we have this experience. And I think that's what makes us like-minded. And we all like pretty much the same kind of musics, and we enjoy our company. It's an ideal setting for the music we like to play and also present.

We're looking for that seamless path from composition to improvisation that, if you're listening, you're not quite sure if something's part of the tune, or the improvisation that started. That's not always our mantra, but it's something we strive for. Composition can take all kinds of forms, as can improvisation. We're exploring both of those areas, and Joe and Michael and Gebhard are very much bringing their own ideas. And, man, we get excited—I get excited—when they bring in something that I hadn't thought of, and that spurs me on to think about that way to think about thinking about composition, or an improvisation. It's a really fruitful association.



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