Recorded on May 16, 2000 at Acoustic Recording, Brooklyn, NY
Conference Call is a quartet made up of reed and woodwind master Gebhard Ullmann, bassist Joe Fonda, the criminally under-recorded pianist Michael Jefry Stevens, and drummer Matt Wilson. This date is not a session by a group of musicians who've adopted a moniker, but a full-on working band who rehearses, composes, and plays together as often as it can since each member is a working soloist in his own right. The prime directive here is, not unexpectedly, Ullmann's intense and fluid sense of off-kilter lyricism. His seamless approach to the horn and staggered sense of open harmonics and tonal structuralism are ever-present. What is surprising is his pairing with Stevens on the front line. Stevens is a knotty pianist whose influences are Cecil Taylor, Bill Evans, Andrew Hill, McCoy Tyner and Horace Silver. His stunning architectural renderings of vast, previously unshaped chords; minor shadings; and furious ostinato are tremendous solo gifts, but in this ensemble, they create a wide and deep floor for not only Ullmann as a soloist, but for the rhythm section as well. What's more, Stevens provides the necessary punch and clamor for the band to swing unencumbered by their considerably complex improvisational style, which is often slipped inside a scored section or bridge. A fine example is "Could This Be a Polka," an effortless series of off-minor piano phrases strung together by the bassline and loped into a melody by Ullmann's gorgeous restraint and willingness to turn the harmony inside out in an even exchange with the impressionistically beautiful melody. Elsewhere, the band's theme, written by Ullmann, features all of the band's intensity and tension in a furiously paced, yet wonderfully rendered melodic architecture of tonal inquiry and multi-scalar invention. But it is Stevens' shimmering balladry on "Liquid Cage" that brings all of the band's influences into play. There is the sense of silence and tension as compositional elements a' la Morton Feldman, the notion of tonality itself as a construct of not only sonic dimension, but metaphysical space as well. The idea that rhythm can exist in a melody this intricate and subtle is revolutionary, but Fonda and Wilson carve out a space in inner space and inform and extend the improvisational structures that emanate from the heart of Stevens' gloriously restrained pianism. This is a remarkable record with a surprise at the end that will leave the listener wondering why this band isn't headlining festivals all over the world.
All Music Guide