Most jazz groups that stay together for a long time, such as The Modern Jazz Quartet or Art Ensemble Of Chicago, achieve a certain prominence. It is a surprise then to realize that the lesser-known band, Conference Call, has been around since 1999 and is here releasing its eighth album.
The group's core members are saxophonist Gebhard Ullmann, pianist Michael Jefry Stevens and bassist Joe Fonda. They have had a succession of drummers over the years; Matt Wilson, Han Bennink, Gerry Hemingway and George Schuller have all done turns in their drum chair but here it is occupied by European composer and free improviser Dieter Ulrich. Conference Call's music can shoot into free jazz realms or stay within the confines of conventional jazz forms, but it always has a lively, boisterous edge.
All the tunes here are written by either Fonda, Stevens or Ullmann. Fonda's "Listen To Dr. Cornell West" previously appeared on the OGJB Quartet's album, Bamako, (TUM, 2019) where he was also the bassist. Here he sets up a furiously rumbling rhythm with Ulrich while Ullmann, on bass clarinet, and Stevens occupy the foreground with slower, lighter squeals which become more intense when Ullmann switches to barreling tenor sax. Fonda's other piece, "The Bee" has him sawing at his bass alongside bass clarinet in a swaying, up and down line which makes it sound like the bee is drunk on pollen. Halfway through, the rhythm base drops out and the music turns free with Ullmann's deep clarinet-blowing dominant over tinkling shards of piano, bass and drums.
Ullmann's three contributions are the loosest of the set. "F.J.D." is a wavering collage of wobbly tenor and piano lines given shape by Fonda's and Ulrich's funky bottom beats. On "Variations On A Master Plan" free-floating rattles and small but lyrical piano figures are wrapped around the reed player's foghorn bellows while on "Zeit Lupe" his tenor sax sounds exhausted as it crawls over Stevens' dreamy wanderings.
Stevens' two pieces are the closest things to mainstream jazz sounds here. "Prism" is a ballad which contrasts the pianist's crystalline notes and Ullman's heavy, romantic tenor sound while "Sal's Song" is a blues with a soulful, striding piano line matched to smeary, warbling tenor while Fonda and Ulrich are wobbling in the back. Halfway through, the rhythm section suddenly snaps into a walking 4/4 beat while Ullman continues to snort and overblow like David Murray.
There are plenty of individual bits of artistry to be heard here but the music's real joy comes from how well all the pieces fit together. Stevens' clarity, Ullman's extremes, Fonda's intensity and Ulrich's flexible rhythms all mesh into an individual blend of sensitivity, emotion and brute force which is equally comfortable running free or finding new wrinkles in the oldest jazz templates. Conference Call is an excellent group which has been creating its own type of avant jazz for over twenty years and sounds stronger than ever on this CD.
F.J.D.; Prism; Listen to Dr. Cornell West; Variation on a Master Plan; Sal’s Song; The Bee; Zeit Lupe.
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