Leo CD LR 26o
Joe Fonda (b); Herb Robertson (t, film); Mark Whitecage (as, as); Michael Jefry Stevens (p); Harvey Sorgen (d).
Michael jefry St/evens says: 'This was the last recording with the original group. When we listened to the Eindhoven recording of my composition "Birdtalk", I realized that I had "laid out" for virtually the entire song, without realizing it. Funny what happens when you give yourself over to the power of music.'
Long-standing groups are relatively rare in jazz, where there is a premium on flexible personnels and fleeting encounters. Fonda/Stevens underlines the enormous benefit of settled relationships, even if individual careers go on in paralleL This is a group of relatively unfashionable - if not exactly 'outsider' - improvisers, who for the last decade and a half have produced music of consistent high intelligence and often great loveliness. Selecting their first release is a decision takenfaute de mieux, since there is scarcely a weak or slack set in the entire output, and because we have a special affection for this line-up. Robertson and Whitecage are both conservative radicals whose most splenetic moments wouldn't cause an earthquake. It's their solos and dialogues with different members of the rhythm section that tend to direct the music, even though the writing is all by the leaders. The compositions are either open-ended sketches or Coleman-like melodies counterpointed between the instruments, and if the latter carry less conviction it's because the playing is ragged when it should be pointed.
Evolution, recorded live in Europe, sees the group move back and forth in musical time. 'Birdtalk' is a clear reference to the bop roots of most of the players. So absorbing is the music that after countless listens we hadn't quite noticed that Stevens was largely absent, until he pointed it out. Robertson's solo is superb, somewhere between Dizzy Gillespie and Booker Little, while 'Song For My Mother' breathes poetry. 'Second Time Around' was an intriguing rhythmic exercise, with just a few indications written out by Fonda for the players: no set harmonic or melodic material. Stevens's `Strayhorn' is a tender portrait of a great composer.
By the time of Live At The Bunker (recorded at a favourite and supportive venue in Bielefeld; as a Jew of German extraction, Stevens isn't blind to the irony of playing in a Second World War bunker!), Robertson had been replaced by Smoker, and Whitecage had moved on, too. It's a new balance of sound and the group has continued to evolve, integrating new personnel here and there. For us, though, tills remains the Fonda/Stevens record the others have to match up to.