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Since moving to Memphis last year, New York pianist Michael Jefry Stevens has helped raise the bar for jazz-imbued expression about town not unlike George Cartwright did in the '90s. In the home of Charles Lloyd, the local jazz scene needs a contemporary voice willing to keep the art form new and relevant, and Stevens is fast doing his part (witness his recent composers series with fellow broad-minded thinker Chris Parker).
Dig into the Stevens catalog and you'll find some amazing treasures, from his prolific output with bassist Joe Fonda (together called "one of the great and often underappreciated jazz groups of the modern era" by All Music Guide) to 2003's stunning solo recital, <I>The Survivor's Suite</I>.
Add <I>Spirals</i> to the list. Among the pianist's rotating ensembles is Conference Call, a quartet co-led by German reeds master Gebhard Ullmann and Fonda. Their third record in as many years finds the trio of free spirits aided this time by Gunther Schuller's son, George Schuller, on drums. Recorded in concert last year at Berlin's B-Flat club, the album is a whirlwind of expression that swings from post-bop intensity (Ullmann's 20-minute "Dreierlei") to heart-tugging lyricism ("Little Pete's Diner" by Stevens) to myth-wielding mystery (Ullmann's perfectly titled "Translucent Tones").
And lest you think that only rock stars hold opinions on current events, or that jazz exists in an intellectual ivory tower, Conference Call goes on the offensive in a tune called "Three." Referring to "the brains" behind the Iraqi war -- Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz -- the avant-garde number opens with polyphonic bellows of "There are three of them!" before turning into an atonal tirade worthy of Cecil Taylor. Jazz hasn't felt this bracing in years.