Conference Call is a quartet, but could also be described as a trio+ because the core memberssaxophonist and bass clarinetist Gebhard Ullmann, pianist Michael Jefry Stevens, and bassist Joe Fondahave been touring and recording together for more than two decades. The plus moniker derives from the quartet's interchange of drummers. Early on, the seat was occupied by Matt Wilson, then Han Bennink, Gerry Hemingway, and George Schuller. The quartet's latest edition is Swiss drummer Dieter Ulrich, who you might have heard in groups led by Omri Ziegele.
Prism, a studio session, was recorded in 2016 while the quartet was on tour. All four musicians were working on various projects in different parts of the world (that was before the global pandemic) and their music definitely benefitted from the familiarity that was built, and the musical conversations had, during repeated live performances. In fact, half of their eight releases have been live recordings. Here we can enjoy an excellent studio sound and maybe more importantly, a no-nonsense approach (if that's possible for improvising artists) to this music.
With composing chores shared by the original three, the mood is varied. The boldness of Ullmann's "F.J.D." and Fonda's "Listen to Dr. Cornel West" is contrasted by the gentle touch of Steven's "Prism." Ullmann's saxophone and bass clarinet can thump your chest or, on the latter piece, caress your essence with Stevens' and Fonda's sympathetic accompaniment. Let's just say Ulrich is finding his place in the quartet. His music travels well with his partners, coexisting without monopolizing the affair. Take, for instance, "Variations On A Master Plan (Part 2)" where the woolly and amorphousness of the music find Ulrich and his partners engaging in a musical truce. Compare that to "Sal's Song," a blues romp which draws direct lines from Archie Shepp and Horace Parlan recordings. Ulrich thunders, Stevens and Fonda swing for the fences, and Ullmann draws deep from his gutbucket. Let's hope this quartet hits the road, a post- pandemic road.
F.J.D.; Prism; Listen to Dr. Cornel West; Variations On A Master Plan (Part 2); Sal’s Song; The Bee; Zeit Lupe.
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