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May 2001

Fonda-Stevens Group
Live at the Bunker
Leo Records

A wonderfully inclusive quartet date-recorded live in Germany in 1999-that makes no fuss over its broad range; whether tackling pianist Michael Jefry Steven's gorgeous, richly lyrical ballad "For Us" or leaping into the freedom of bassist Joe Fonda's open-ended "Circle," this group plays with equal precision and passion. The big attraction here may be the presence of the similarly multifaceted, big-toned trumpeter Paul Smoker. On the episodic "Borrowed Time" the Iowa native shifts gears like Richard Petty, uncorking garrulous, mute-kissed abstractions on the tune's free passages and blowing lines of pure, cleanly articulated melody with an endearingly sweet tone during the swinging parts-drummer Harvey Sorgen is right there behind him, subtly driving the proceedings, from one end of the spectrum to the other.

In the liner notes Fonda, a veteran of both blues bands and Anthony Braxton, says, "There is no separation in the music. It's all part of the same continuum." These six compositions more than bear out that philosophy without any clever po-mo hopscotching. "Don't Go Baby" resembles an early Blue Note-era Jackie McLean tune, while "Oh, Lord, It's Nice to Sit on Your Porch Today" simply trusts its own arresting instincts, morphing from the feel of an old spiritual to an aggressive shuffle replete with spectacular plunger-mute growls from Smoker and sheets of hyperactive piano from Stevens; along the way the quartet good-naturedly warbles the title, exuding the same sort of palpable joy one can sense when they speak with their instruments.

A modest gem.

Originally published in May 2001
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