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The Fonda/Stevens Group: Memphis

John Sharpe By

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Eighteen years and eleven albums is not bad going for a band roaming that precarious borderline between the mainstream and the avant-garde. And it has been achieved with the same core line-up of the two principal composers, bassist Joe Fonda and pianist Michael Jefry Stevens, together with drummer Harvey Sorgen and trumpeter Herb Robertson. That this well-recorded studio date—recorded at the end of the band's first ever US tour in March, 2008—speaks volumes about where the music finds itself is most welcome.

Everyone, by now, boasts an impressive back catalogue in their own right, but they continue to come together due to what Stevens terms "a bond on the bandstand that allows us to continually experiment and take chances." Not that this is an all-out blowing band; it's more subtle than that. Their inside/outside ethos finds mellow expression in a 60-minute program, comprising five new songs and five reprised from previous discs, stemming equally from the pens of both leaders.

Fonda's opener, "In the Whitecage," dates back to their first release in 1996 and original member reedman Mark Whitecage, making for the knottiest cut, powered forward by ominous cellular motifs from Stevens, and Robertson's pinched trumpet over a lurching rhythm. Elsewhere their experimental tendencies creep up almost unnoticed within what seem relatively orthodox structures, as when time sporadically dissolves on "Looking for the Lake," like a film going in and out of focus.

Even when the charts seem straight ahead they can be subverted by Robertson in particular, who always avoids the obvious route between A and B. Constructed of drones, buzzes and legato slurs, his feature on the loping "Changing Tides" contains very little resembling a conventional trumpet solo. By contrast, Stevens is a melodist at heart. He takes a lovely, bluesy solo break on "Yes This Is It," while his lyrical uncoiling piano solo on "Changing Tides" is especially noteworthy. In the engine room, Fonda and Sorgen know each other inside out by now. They pick up on shifts in rhythm and tempo so smoothly that it's only when paying close attention that their audacious command is fully appreciated.

In among the more oblique arrangements are foot-tappers, like the infectious "There Is a Very Fine Line Between Your Life and Mine" and the down and dirty "Memphis Ramble," which corral some of the "anything goes" feel from live gigs into the studio, complete with raucous vocals (but don't hang up the instruments just yet guys) affirming their warmth and humanity. "Break Song" makes for a driving closer which sums up the merits of this fine disc: intelligent writing, strong solos and lively ensemble interplay.

Visit Joe Fonda and Michael Jefry Stevens on the web.


Track Listing: In The Whitecage; For My Brother; Looking For The Lake; Changing Tides; The Path; Yes This Is It! ; There Is A Very Fine Line Between Your Life And Mine; Whale Majesty; Memphis Ramble; Break Song.

Personnel: Herb Robertson: trumpet; Michael Jefry Stevens: piano; Joe Fonda: bass; Harvey Sorgen: drums.

Title: Memphis | Year Released: 2009 | Record Label: Playscape Recordings


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