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Conference Call - Variations on a Master Plan

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Artist: Conference Call

Album: Variations on a Master Plan

Label: Leo

Review date: Aug. 13, 2003

Lackluster Summit

Conference Call is the name of a sort of new music supergroup, comprised of clarinetist/saxophonist Gebhard Ullmann, pianist Michael Jefry Stevens, bassist Joe Fonda, and drummer Han Bennink (though the group has also recorded with Matt Wilson at the kit). This disc documents a March 2001 live date in Germany. The music is pleasing on the whole but, to my ears, isn’t particularly challenging or compelling. The primary reason is that I’m not sure Bennink is the right drummer for this group. Especially in an assemblage such as this, focused on timbral and harmonic integration, he’s more confrontational than supportive. That may work with Misha Mengelberg, but not so well here. And the result is, though there are many fine moments scattered across this concert, the band never quite generates that head of steam.

Slow block chords and whalesong arco open "Quiet," the concert’s first piece. The interaction between Fonda and Stevens is great, no doubt because the two have logged a lot of hours on the bandstand in various combos including their co-led Fonda-Stevens group. Ullmann’s entrance is very promising, as his deliberate harmonic archness on clarinet wriggles into the rhythmic spaces. But Bennink’s clunks and crashes sound quite out of place. The piece generally continues on slow burn, building from the lower registers, and gets a bit more crazed during a piano/drums duo, followed by a typically exuberant Fonda solo. Some pieces tend to suit this particular lineup a bit more: "Circle" begins with an exuberant tenor/drums sparring match (which is decent but certainly unremarkable as far as energy music goes), while "Improvisation No. 2" is a fairly satisfying free-ish piece with good piano and bass clarinet interplay (and later on a nice duo of duos, as Stevens and Bennink jab away behind arco bass and clarinet). Still, the finest tunes are brief and lyrical, filled with shade and color: the pleasantly dark "Variations on a Theme by Claude Debussy," the Nino Rota jewel "Parlami Di Me," and Joe Fonda’s lovely "Song for My Mother." As I said above, Variations on a Master Plan has its moments. But given the caliber of the individual players, one might reasonably expect the sum of parts to be more impressive.

By Jason Bivins

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