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Joe Fonda: Rhythmic Architect

By Published: May 19, 2008
AAJ:Both you and Michael compose for this group, and the group so consists of the combination of group chemistry and the compositions. The performances have never been chained to the songs, but use what are very strong compositions as starting points—and ending points, and points of reference. Harvey's drumming feels as melodic as do the bass and piano, just as the bass and piano feel as rhythmic as drums. You speak of the three of you as the "rhythm section," but you're so much more than a timekeeping unit.

JF: That's really true. I guess it's only a rhythm section in the sense of being the piano, bass and drums. But the first thing I want to say is that Michael and I have co-led the band for fifteen years now and there aren't many people in the world that I could have done this with. I think Michael would say the same thing. It's a rarity in this day of individualism and egomania that two people could actually do what we've done. Michael is an amazing partner and musician and man to be able to keep this together and make the kinds of compromises that are needed, year after year. And I also bring the same aspects to the relationship, so we can actually do it as a co-led band.

Second of all, compositionally it is quite interesting because Michael has a very different approach to composition than I do. Michael writes songs. He thinks in that form and then looks for ways to open it up. I'm much more of a conceptual composer; I tend to think more architecturally, and melody and harmony might be secondary sometimes. I think first in terms of rhythm and structure.

But we've been able to blend them together in a unique way so it sounds like cohesive music. The two personalities actually blend really well.

Joe Fonda / Trio

And Harvey is an essential part of the band. His approach to the music and his approach to drumming have really helped us to do what you said we do with the compositions. Michael and I are serious composers and we do bring strong compositions in. But we don't adhere to the composition—we allow them to evolve and not be a fixed system. There might be a certain number of bars, a given set of rhythms—a song with 32 bars could happen, but if we choose to let it go, we can. We do. That's something we've developed over the years, and Harvey's an essential part of that. He's not stuck in his timekeeping role. Harvey has very strong time and a deep groove, but he is very expansive. He really allows things to open up in terms of time and the metrical givens that might be in any certain compositions. Without a drummer like Harvey, we could never have developed that ability to be that elastic with the compositions. He's really one of the keys to that whole concept of having compositions but not keeping them fixed systems. They have an elastic quality, a flexibility.

You know, in the earlier days, Whitecage also really helped us understand how to do this. Mark was really great at showing us how to open up compositions, and I have to give him credit for that. When we started out as a quintet, we were bringing the songs in, but Mark—without even saying anything—would pull the band in another direction. It was really connected, and we'd just kind of go with him. It was a real lesson that he gave us in the beginning. Mark know how to do this, and I want to acknowledge that.

AAJ: Well, this isn't a band where any of the players has ever fought what anyone else wanted to do. There's not a lot of resisting someone else's idea, of not going along with it.

You know, when I listen back to our recordings, I always think, "What's happening here is everyone's allowing the others to be themselves. No one is dictating: "You've got to do this, you've got to do that." We've always really allowed everyone to come on in and be themselves. Completely. You can bring your whole personality, and we'll see what happens.

So you hit it on the head. To me, that's been the key to the success of the Fonda/Stevens Group, and to the uniqueness of its sound.

Joe FondaAAJ: A lot of jazz groups stray a long way from their tunes. But often those tunes tend to be vampy little structures. That is not true with this band.

JF: Yeah, that's true. I would agree with that. It's not a new concept to have something and then allow the music to go free, to open up. But the compositions that we are working with are—well, maybe they're more evolved. The process is slightly unique. I agree with you; I think that's a very astute observation on your part.

AAJ: I already mentioned that your song "The Path" is one of my favorites. It's a beautiful song, but it's not easy beautiful. Its stops and starts give the piece a feeling of rockiness, of moving towards something that really isn't that easy to achieve. Any thoughts?

JF: I'd like to say something about that composition. I'm really glad you brought it up. I was speaking with my partner about this piece. We have another recording of the song on a new Conference Call recording. I think it's the definitive version. That composition—those particular chords, those particular melodies—go back about twenty years. I discovered those sounds twenty years ago. When I wrote "The Path," I rearranged some melodic things that have been a part of me for twenty years. I discovered some of those things, some of those songs, when I first started playing and writing music. They have stayed with me so long because they are really what I would call Joe Fonda-isms. They're true to me and they resonate with my spirit. They really speak to who I am.

Every now and then I have brought things into my contemporary projects from that far back, and I always find out that these things that I discovered early on were really Joe Fonda sounds.

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