Variation on a Master Plan
Leo CD LR 371

Unlike Osama bin Laden or George Bush, it’s very feasible that the members of the Euro-American co-op Conference Call don’t have a real master plan — and definitely not one for world domination.

However the band’s newest CD does pinpoint a plan variation, as veteran drummer Han Bennink has now taken over the drum chair. It seems to be not a minute too soon, either. For while the flailing Dutchman’s penchant for schtick and bombast can often pulverize more delicate sounds, Conference Call’s other three members are tough enough to face a Lowlands invasion. Plus the nearly perpetual percussion sounds he adds to the disc push the others out of a studied delicacy to which they sometimes seem to be heading.

Primary example of this would be on the nearly 14-minute “Variations on a Theme by Claude Debussy”, written and played by German multi-reedist Gebhard Ullmann as a slow-moving ballad. Between the sliding tones and squeaks from his woody bass clarinet and the low-intensity, semi-classical countermotifs from American pianist Michael Jefry Stevens, during its gestation it almost seems as if the tune will arrive still-born. However Bennink’s drum rolls, cymbal smashes and just plain banging manages to wake up everyone. From high-pitch arpeggios, the pianist soon adopts some Debussyian crescendos, Ullmann contributes tongue slaps and colored air breaths and American bassist Joe Fonda’s buzzing rhythm can be heard. The tune finally climaxes in an outpouring from crash cymbals and chordal piano.

Bomb dropping and letting loose drags and paradiddles, Bennink does something similar on Fonda’s “Circle”, which lives up to its descriptive title with its circular theme. As Ullmann, on tenor saxophone, involves himself in Sonny Rollins-like emphasized snorts and honks, the drummer who has played with Rollins, extends the time with sprightly tap dance-like beats. From then on Ullmann spins out long-lined trills that are doubled and tripled with contiguous note vibrations produced by overblowing. A slinky, sliding waltz time signature propelled from behind the drum set also helps the reedist — this time on soprano saxophone — to harden his arrangement of Nino Rota’s “Parlami Di Me” from drawing room European to something more rhythmically exciting, complete with squeaking multiphonics.

On the downside, the drummer’s introduction of the clave beat, the swish of a sizzle cymbal and some Native Indian drumming on “Improvisation No. 2” only serves to muddy the output of an already murky piece. Although Stevens avoid the floweriness and impressionistic climaxes he sometimes exhibits elsewhere, the idea of playing an out-and-out improv appears to bring out his quirky side. At one point he seems to be playing a percussive version of “Chopsticks”, at another an offbeat cha cha cha. More palatable are the high intensity tremolos he introduces elsewhere. Upper-range mirrored tones are Ullmann’s contributions, inexplicably backed for a few bars by classical-styled arco bass. The whole thing ends with a projected sax honk.

Much more impressive is Fonda’s “Song For My Mother”, a tension building composition based on unwavering piano obbligatos and emphasized intensity vibrations from Ullmann. Thematically anthem-like, it suggest what Pharoah Sanders would sound like playing a patriotic song. But why glossolalia would be needed in a patriotic hymn for one’s mother isn’t quite clear. Still, lasting only 3½-minutes, this seems to be the track that should have been expanded to greater length.

Valuable for followers of any of the musicians involved — especially Bennink — overall the session seems to suggest that Conference Call’s Master Plan needs a little more tweaking. Maybe next time out, a different organization will lead to world domination — at least in the musical sense.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Quiet 2. Circle 3. Variations On A Theme by Claude Debussy 4. Parlami Di Me 5. Improvisation No. 2 6. Song For My Mother

Personnel: Gebhard Ullmann (soprano and tenor saxophones, bass clarinet); Michael Jefry Stevens (piano); Joe Fonda (bass); Han Bennink (drums)