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Joe Fonda: Rhythmic Architect

By Published: May 19, 2008
AAJ: There's a point certain musicians reach—Billy Bang's violin, at this point, is just a Billy Bang-expressing device. And your bass is the same—it's not playing you, you're playing it.

JF: That's very true, and it's the same with Barry. That's right on the money.

AAJ: Did you think this group was always destined to improvise more and more? Is that something the three of you thought would happen?

JF: We had no idea. When we first started, we got together, it sounded good, and we started to work. But I don't think we had any idea; that's just how it started to evolve.

AAJ: Tell me about the Joe Fonda Bottoms Out project, which is a band of yourself, baritone saxophonist Claire Daly, tuba player Joe Daley, bass clarinetist Gerbhard Ullmann, bassoon player Michael Rabinowitz and drummer Gerry Hemingway. You released a CD called Loaded Basses (CIMP, 2006) a couple of years ago.

This is sort of your exploration of the low end of the sonic spectrum, as evidenced by the instrumentation, and it's a unique band configuration. It's your own invention, as it were. You write the tunes and do the arrangements. There's some complex, even orchestral composing on pieces like "Breakdown" and some contrapuntal playing. How'd you dream this up, and did it end up sounding like you imagined?

JF: I had the idea for a long time—I wanted something where I was using low-register instruments to make the sound. It had been on my mind for years, and I had tried it somewhat seven or eight years ago with [composer] Scott Miller. We had a band called Bottoms Out, and put some of that concept into use. But we still had alto in there. This is the true exploration of that idea that I had.

Joe Fonda / The Nu Band

I've always been interested in how I could make that sound blend, and what it would feel like to have that amount of low frequency on the bandstand at the same time. I'm somebody that has a very deep groove, and my roots are R&B, so I was really interested in how I could use those instruments to go for that deep groove. The pieces I write for the group are highly structured, and there's improvisation inside them. I was going for a combination of that unique sound of the low instruments and making use of those R&B roots I have. The grooves that I use go back to my days of playing the blues, playing rock—the grooves are swinging, but the essence of them comes out of that music I played before.

Plus I wanted to draw on all the influences I've had over the years, from Monk, Charlie Parker, and from being with Anthony Braxton. I wanted it to be complete circle of my musical experience.

And for me, this group does capture that really well. We've put a lot of time into working on this, and these guys are great improvisers. There's no problem with them—you give them a solo, or you say, "This is a collective thing, so do textures here"—and they can do it all. They're masters. And we did a show in Lisbon, and it was just what I had hoped it would be. When we hit the grooves, they were deep, connected and very much in the body. They had that essence.

Yeah, I'm deeply into this project. I want to continue with this one, do some more work, record it again—I want to expand on what I've already started. I would say that's the special aspect of the project for me: It covers the whole arc of my musical experience. And all those guys and gals in it can have the same relationships with the music too. Gerry can groove hard when he wants to, and so can Joe Daley. And they can also play some of the most amazing solos and collective improvisations in the world. Mike Rabinowitz is one of the greatest musicians I know, and so is Claire Daly.

AAJ: Somehow I thought that one might be especially dear to your heart.

JF: That it is.

AAJ: Well, I can't ask about every band and project you've been involved with, even the most recent ones.

Joe Fonda / KBullJF: Let's talk a little bit about Conference Call. Because that's an amazing project to me, and I think the music is some of the finest music that's being played out here. It's me, Gebhard Ullmann, Michael Stevens and, now, George Schuller. George is the drummer now—we started with Matt Wilson, and from Matt we went to Han Bennink. They were too busy to really be committed to it, and now George has the chair. George is a fantastic drummer and an amazing composer, following his father's footsteps [Gunther Schuller].

I think the band has reached a very high level of communication between the musicians, and the compositions that folks are bringing are really unique. Gebhard's writing is really fresh—George's, too. And the band has a unique way of allowing things to open up. It's different from Fonda/Stevens, but we have found a way to allow things to evolve. It's more direct, I think. Gebhard will say, "Let's try to do it this way," where Fonda/Stevens would do it in a more natural, non-verbal, non-directed approach. With Conference Call, it's more like, "okay, we're going to do this, this, and then this, and it doesn't work, we'll try this."

But the sound of the band and the quality of the compositions—they're just top-notch to me. It's really about music right now, at this point in time. I really think it's one of the most happening ensembles out here. This band should be workin' in the Vanguard, if you ask me.

I want you to hear this new version Conference Call plays of "The Path." If you liked the version on the trio record, you'll probably like this one more.

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