Bagatellen review by Clifford Allen

Conference Call – Poetry In Motion (CF 118)
Pianist-composer Michael Jefry Stevens and bassist-composer Joe Fonda have been working together for nearly two decades in various aggregations; two of the most regular have been the Fonda/Stevens Group and Conference Call. The latter ensemble, active for the past ten years, joins the pair with German reedman Gebhard Ullmann and drummer George Schuller (other occupants of that chair have included Gerry Hemingway, Han Bennink and Matt Wilson). It’s an appropriate name for a group with two New Yorkers, another from Tennessee, and one from Berlin, though at this point they’re hardly the only regularly active band with an interstate or intercontinental cast. Featuring seven titles, Poetry In Motion is their fifth release and first for Clean Feed.

Fonda’s arco glisses pierce the martial pounding of Ullmann’s “The Shining Star,” Stevens’ left hand weighted and right arcing outward as Schuller hangs in midair. Ullmann’s an alternately throaty and disarmingly clean player, weaving with cloudy precision through his self-penned dusk and bounce. Even as he yelps and pesters with chewed phrases, there’s quick and almost scholarly fluidity around fire-music tenor phrasing, culminating in a brief cornering with Fonda before the tune dissipates. The title piece, penned by Stevens, finds the composer and Ullmann’s bass clarinet exploring filmic East-European corners and slinking their way around in woody darts, Fonda and Stevens subtly hacking at those very same curves. As the quartet opens up, Stevens’ runs become fractured and pointillist, stop-start jabs beside a litany of post-Out To Lunch reed squawk. Schuller’s “Back To School” recalls Burton Greene’s recent re-explorations of Bartok (as well as some of Carla Bley’s Liberation Music writing), and perhaps not coincidentally, Schuller has recorded with Greene for CIMP. The theme seems built for Ullmann, whose brightened edges match Stevens’ poise, and it isn’t until his solo spot two minutes in that dirt gets under the fingernails. It is here that the saxophonist seems the most unbridled, blowing without a hint of slickness. The rhythm section is extraordinarily lyrical, Stevens positively lush in his solo as he’s fleshed out by bells and surly pluck. When four musician-composers with this level of technique and creativity get together, it’s sure to bring quality playing, but the most interesting moments on Poetry In Motion occur when the quartet forgets what they know and just do.

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