Conference Call: Evolution of a Burning Bush

Reprinted with permission. Copyright © All About Jazz and Gordon Marshall.

January 2011 by Gordon Marshall for All About Jazz

Conference Call can be as balanced and beautiful as an intricate organism, and just as soon rage with holy fire. The quartet--consisting of saxophonist Gebhard Ullman, bassist Joe Fonda, drummer George Schuller and pianist Michael Jefry Stevens--perpetually weaves in all three dimensions, as well as in time--its own, and music history's.

Together since the late '90s, the group is going strong, burning away but losing no energy, relating jazz past and political past to hard and fast present moments--and spiriting these, in turn, into a future history--forging sound new documents bound to have permanent place in the history of music. Whether that sound is a cry from the streets, a cry of a people, or the cry of a sole saxophone, Conference Call captures it, reporting straight from the scene of stage or studio.

All About Jazz: Now I know you are from different places--and calling from different places. What are they?

George Schuller: I'm in Brooklyn, New York, the Kensington area.

Joe Fonda: I'm in Manhattan.

Michael Jefry Stevens: I'm in Memphis, Tennessee.

AAJ: Is that where you grew up?

MJS: I've been living there for the last 8-1/2 years. I'm from New York--Queens, originally.

AAJ: Let's start with you, Joe. How did you get into jazz, and into Conference Call?

JF: My early jazz influences come from my father, and my mother. They were both musicians. My mother was a vocalist and my father was a trumpet player during the swing era so my first jazz gigs and jazz exposure came from my father who invited me to play with him, back when I was in high school. And from there--

AAJ: What years were you in high school?

JF: I graduated in '73. I went to Berklee College of Music for two years. So, I began my jazz adventures in 1973, starting at Berklee. From there I met all kinds of wonderful people and moved into the career where I am now.

As far as Conference Call goes, I think Michael was the first one to connect with Gebhard. Michael and I were touring in Berlin, and Gebhard would come down to hear the Fonda/Stevens group, and Michael started a communication with him about maybe doing something. Michael and Gebhard had asked me to get involved. Gebhard had started coming to New York at that time and Michael was living in Brooklyn, we were playing at his house, looking for different drummers. Actually I had called Matt Wilson, at the very beginning, because I knew Matt. And so it started with Matt.

MJS: I had been doing some playing with Phil Haynes, who basically got me straight. And Phil and I were just starting playing Europe at that time, the late '90s, and Phil said, “You should contact my friend Gebhard who's doing a lot of the same things you're doing.” When Gebhard came to New York he called me up and he came over my apartment in Brooklyn. We played a little bit and we decided we wanted to start a band, and I thought about recruiting Joe, who I'd been playing with since 1984, with Mark Whitecage. So that's how that started, and we tried various drummers. Matt Wilson was first.

JF: Then we went through Han Bennink, we had Gerry Hemingway on the tour, and eventually we found George--and George is here to stay! Right, George?

GS: I think so...I could clear that up about the drummers in the band: I did come after Matt, who was in the chair for two years--and then Han Bennink was in there for one tour. And then I got the call from Joe, to come down--I guess to do a session. They wanted to feel me out, like an audition. And they were getting ready to do this tour, in Canada, but actually it was just one date. That was the famous September, 2001 tour that was basically going from one Midwest town to another.

So that was my first introduction into Conference Call. I mean, I was thrown into the fire, literally. And these guys just brought something out of me--at least if not for that tour, the next time playing with Michael and Geb' and Joe. It was a turning point in my career, joining these guys and knowing, “Hey, I moved to New York, specifically for this to happen.” Because I was living in Boston for many years. Not that I toiled there or wasn't getting any opportunities, but when I did make the move to New York by '95, it took me a few years to find like-minded musicians and get the chance to play with such strong musicians and composers. They took me in without too much complaint...

AAJ: What makes them like-minded?

GS: I think we're all coming from basically the same school, it's a huge school of improvisers and composers. And finding that well of creativity that brings composition and improvisation together, we're all trying to figure that out as a group. We bring in compositions, and when we bring in ideas, we all have this basic idea of how things should happen and we have this experience. And I think that's what makes us like-minded. And we all like pretty much the same kind of musics, and we enjoy our company. It's an ideal setting for the music we like to play and also present.

We're looking for that seamless path from composition to improvisation that, if you're listening, you're not quite sure if something's part of the tune, or the improvisation that started. That's not always our mantra, but it's something we strive for. Composition can take all kinds of forms, as can improvisation. We're exploring both of those areas, and Joe and Michael and Gebhard are very much bringing their own ideas. And, man, we get excited--I get excited--when they bring in something that I hadn't thought of, and that spurs me on to think about that way to think about thinking about composition, or an improvisation. It's a really fruitful association.

AAJ: Do you have any kind of formula?

JF: The formula is that everybody brings their composition in, but nobody has the right to direct it 100 percent. The band shapes it. I had an interesting experience at our last recording session, and my brother Michael straightened me out immediately. I was upset because the composition wasn't working the way I wanted it. And I was communicating that. And Michael said, “Joe, stop! This is Conference Call... If you want your composition played a certain way, and only a certain way, you've got to start your own band. In Conference Call, everybody's allowed to shape the music.” And right away I put that aside, and I said, “Thank you brother, you're right.” And George came up with an idea that solved the problem for that particular composition, in that recording session, that I couldn't have come up with myself. That's how it works with Conference Call.

MJS: The great thing about everybody in the band is that they're very strong composers, as well as players, and everybody has there own way of composing, as George was saying. And it's very hard to find a band where all the members have a unique sound of composing. And the way we've learned to shape the music is to allow each member equal say in how the music is formed.

AAJ: The three of you: you're the rhythm section, strictly speaking. Is it hard giving yourselves equal voice to Gebhard, when Gebhard is really the loudest or most noticeable instrument--is that a challenge to keep up with him and be as voluble and as integral a part of the band?

JF: No, because even though he's the saxophone, each of us has equal input playing-wise. Just because he's the horn player--the band has a collective mentality, not a rhythm section/soloist mentality. And that's another like-mindedness. You it doesn't matter if you're playing saxophone, piano, bass or drums--or George is playing his little flute whistle! It all has equal importance and presence and is incorporated in this kind of way.

AAJ: Joe, one of my favorite compositions of yours is “Three,” the political number from Spirals (482 Music, 2004). Now that sounds to me like sheer energy music, like it was just a spontaneous improvisation. What makes it your composition, allowing you to put your name to it?

JF: That was a piece that was happening at a point in time when something was going on politically, and I had to express that, and luckily my band members were OK with that. It was my idea. There might have been a few melodic fragments, but I came up with the concept for the text, and I was the one who was talking about these three individuals who said that Iraq had to go down a long time ago.

GS: You've got to come up with something about The Tea Party now!

JF: Everybody put a lot in because it had more to do with the energy and expression of the political anger and frustration that all of us were feeling at the time.

AAJ: You said in the introduction to that song that you didn't feel you were going to reverse any policies with it. What was your purpose in writing that song? Was it just a venting?

JF: To express what was going on in our life at that time. When Charles Mingus wrote “Remember Rockefeller at Attica” [Changes One (Atlantic, 1974)] he didn't change the fact that Attica's this place where these men were mowed down like they were nothing. But you know Mingus had to write a composition to express his feelings about what happened at that point in time, and he's alive on this planet--and he was upset! And rightfully so. So, the concept is the same, for me. Even though I didn't change a thing and Mingus didn't change the reality of Attica--but man, you put a piece of music out into the world that expressed a feeling and concern, and anger about what was going on his world.

AAJ: You did, too, Joe.

JF: Well, Thank you. That's what the idea was. And by the way, I'm still angry.

GS: I want to pipe in: we were mostly traveling in Europe around March 2003. We had to address the audience in some way. We had to apologize. And in a way that was our humble way of doing it...You get a little lonely sometimes when you go over there and suddenly your country is trying to do its global dominance. It's complicated out there. Anyway, nobody actually threw tomatoes at us, or accosted us. But it's important to express opinions.

AAJ: Back to your style, and the quality of your music. I notice that your--there's a sort of static quality to your work. It develops and unfolds almost at a glacial pace--not the actual tempo, but the themes and the motifs. It makes me think of those films where a flower blossoms over a period of several days--where you see a very slow process in minute detail. How do you experience your own playing when you're performing?

MJS: The way I experience my music is as a composer, so I'm always trying to take whatever the musical ideas are, whether they're predetermined through composition, or spontaneous through improvisation. I'm always trying to develop them in as much detail and variation as possible.

AAJ: I also see you as “thieving magpies,” where you'll have a lot of different styles, just touches of different styles. It's very nice, that quality that you have... You must have a great knowledge of jazz, the history of jazz--and even composed music--to be able to do that.

MJS: I'm trying to learn as much as I can. I certainly have more knowledge now than I did 20 years ago, but I'm still learning... What's important about this band is, we really like each other, we don't have any personal problems, we respect each other. Everybody has their own experiences. If you talk about Gebhard, he comes from this European classical tradition, and he had these rock bands in Germany; then you have George, who came from this musical family, and he was a bandleader, and he's still a bandleader; and then there's Joe with his blues influences and his father. And then you come to me, and my parents were dancers.

GS: It would be nice to trace back all the roots and experiences and influences, sort of like a tree, and try to figure that out for each of us, and then put that up on the wall--it would be interesting to see what makes each of us tick, why did we come to this place. There would be thousands of things that you'd have to throw in there.

AAJ: Then there's the evolution of the band itself--that's another sort of growth--your growth together...

JF: I got something I want to throw in here real quick. For me, of all the projects I'm involved in, this band is the most consistent, in terms of its performance. The band is on, consistently. And I really appreciate and respect that, because I strive for that in my own musical life. I don't care how tired I am, how many days I've been on the road, whether I've eaten or not, I get up there, and I don't care if there's only two days left on the tour, I still give 950 percent of my heart and soul every time, and I've striven for that my whole life. This band is the project I'm involved in that manifests that attitude more than any other. It's why I think about Conference Call more than other projects. I can count on this band to be there. If I've got a gig at The Village Vanguard, I tell you Conference Call will be the band that I call, because they're going to get up there and do it. I won't have anybody who's complaining or tired, or drank to much gin in the afternoon. Conference Call is a consistent band when it comes to performing, and it's reflected in the CDs, too. Every CD that we've done has been consistently strong.

And Gebhard, I think he pulls us in this direction. I've played with a lot of musicians, and Gebhard is one of the most consistent musicians I've ever played with. And I need that in my life, and Conference Call brings it, and Gebhard brings it as an individual.

AAJ: Your work can be very mellow and dry at some points, like a white wine, and then it can get intense and turn into classic '60s energy music, and go into post-bop or swing. How do you calibrate these changes, and what inspires you? What are your cues?

JF: Musicians use the entire continuum. It's that like-mindedness again. The band has, all of us have a strong awareness of the entire continuum of the music. So all of that is used in the vocabulary. We leave nothing out. We use everything from what came at the turn of the last century, Basie through bebop through swing through Duke Ellington, through Schoenberg through Stockhausen. We have an awareness of that, and I think that's how we weave through that. And my music, I even draw from folk music. I'm a James Taylor fanatic! You can find James Taylor influence in my music. Neil Young...I put on Cecil Taylor, Stockhausen, and then I put on Neil Young!

GS: Dynamics is also an important element that we bring in. When people think of free jazz they think of this frantic, angry, volcanic kind of music. And there's a lot of beautiful free jazz, either pointillistic, or just very tame--or it can be churning below the surface and you're not sure what sounds are coming out. And I think we all dig that, too: coming from nowhere and then exploding, or exploding first and then just going to nowhere. We understand how to shape our improvs. Sometimes we go off on a tangent and maybe one person takes over. I think more than often we use our huge ears and try to navigate all our experiences coming out. It's a process that is very enjoyable.

MJS: Gebhard's not here talking with us now, but he's such a major influence on what we do. What he wants to hear--he has a very clear idea of what he wants to hear and what he doesn't what to hear... And there's always been this struggle between myself and him because I'm the most romantic of the band, in terms of wanting just pretty melodies, and in the beginning Gebhard was interested in getting this merger of different styles into the music. In the beginning, he told me and Joe, “I don't really want to swing.” Now, being together for 12 or 13 years there is more of a balance, but at the beginning his ideas were very powerful.

GS: Michael, you're so romantic, but you know I've never received any flowers from you...

MJS: Well, you know I'm married, George. That's the problem!

AAJ: That relates to my last question: are you “married” to each other? Are you going to stay faithful to each other as a band?

JF: We're not going anywhere, we're waiting for the world to wake up that we're here!

GS: Yeah, we're already planning for the future, and I look forward to meeting up with these guys. It's very difficult, we're all located in different parts of the world. It's remarkable that we can get together at the beginning of a tour, and pull together some of our old tunes, and even add new tunes, right off the bat. And that's what makes this band so pliable and exciting.

AAJ: Like old friends meeting, picking up the thread without skipping a beat.

GS: Exactly. If we weren't musicians and we met at a bar, I guess we'd start up the conversation like it never had to end before.

Reprinted with permission. Copyright © All About Jazz and Gordon Marshall.