Conference Call at Dewerf in Brugge. Photo by Jos. L. Knaepen

PROOF-POSITIVE: CONFERENCE CALL

By Michael Campbell

Midway through their performance on the rooftop of a strip mall constructed in the mid-80s, we all realized we were going to have to join Conference Call in the alcove where they had previously sequestered themselves.  Ever the gracious host, bassist Joe Fonda ushered all 20 or so of us to hide from the increasing rainfall.  Some huddled to the sides of the “stage”, while the rest of us got a great view directly behind the band.  Nightfall brought an end to the day and the only light available to us came from a concert promoter’s Toyota Camry headlights.  Needless to say, this was indeed a unique show.

“The closest reference point for me would be those mid-60′s Don Cherry records, Complete Communion and Symphony for Improvisers, albums that consisted of sidelong tracks that strung together distinct tunes with lively interplay.”

Oh, yeah, they actually played music, too.  My previous experience with this group had come through the Clean Feed release Poetry In Motion, a tight, composition-centered 2008 update of the post bop ethic.  The pieces were unique, accessible and daring and their performances of them made for a great recording.  It didn’t really prepare me for the format of their understandably abbreviated set.  The closest reference point for me would be those mid-60′s Don Cherry records, Complete Communion and Symphony for Improvisers, albums that consisted of sidelong tracks that strung together distinct tunes with lively interplay.  Conference Call used a similar dynamic, but traversed a wide gamut of styles, everything from European free improv to Hammond B-3 soul-jazz.

Their brand new Nottwo release, What About….?, is a 2-Disc live set that mirrors that approach.  The performances of Fonda, reed player Gebhard Ullmann, pianist Michael Jefry Stevens and drummer George Schuller (son of Gunter Schuller) are loose but often exciting, employing contemporary creative jazz tropes but interjecting them with effective spontaneous composition.  There’s even tango thrown in for good measure.  There doesn’t seem to be the same stylistic diversity that highlighted the set on top of that be-darkened parking garage, but that doesn’t make this incurably re-playable recording any less enjoyable.

“I’m pretty sure that if non-museum piece jazz is to thrive, it will need to embrace the same spry stylistic versatility that groups like Conference Call embody”.

I’m pretty sure that if non-museum piece jazz is to thrive, it will need to embrace the same spry stylistic versatility that groups like Conference Call embody. The sort of music that neither denies the music’s past nor scoffs at it’s future. This group is proof-positive that artistic success can indeed be met on those terms.

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