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Joe Fonda: Rhythmic Architect

By Published: May 19, 2008
AAJ: I have to discuss Joe Fonda the solo bassist—you did a record called When It's Time (Jazz'halo) in 1999. It's an album of your tunes—plus one by Brenda Bufalino and one by Attilla Zoller—performed by you on bass alone and occasionally your singing voice. It's really dazzling stuff. When you play in this context, it feels so concentrated; it's all on you to decide where something goes and how you're going to say it. You produce so many sounds on your bass. Tell me how you approach this. What works solo and what doesn't?

JF: First, I want to acknowledge David Baker. He was the engineer on that record; he's no longer with us. He died a few years ago. But having him there to get the sound was just fantastic. He was, and still is, for me the greatest engineer for getting the sound of the bass—just the way it really is. I don't know how many microphones he had, and he knew where to put them. He really got my sound right off the bat. Any time I ever worked with David, he always got the greatest bass sound. So I want to credit him for that. We miss him. This community misses David something awful.

Oh, and I have to thank a great friend of mine from Belgium, Jos Demol, who had the insight of doing it. He came up to me after a concert I played. I had done a solo as an introduction to a piece. So he said, "We've got to record a solo record. Would you like to do it?" I said, "I've never thought about doing that, Jos, but it sounds great." He had that record label at that time [Jazz'halo]. So without his interest and vision, it wouldn't have happened.

So, I hadn't done it before. But I thought, "Okay, I'll play some of my compositions that allow for me to really let my personality come out." I also brought in some of my sound concepts, just things I've developed—I chose certain pieces where I could exploit certain types of sounds.

Joe Fonda / Full Circle

I remember that I stayed in the studio for a long time. I was a little nervous at first—for the first twenty minutes, I didn't really have the focus that I wanted. After about twenty minutes, I realized, "Okay, I'm starting to find the focus. I can do this by myself." Then I must have played straight for three hours. I might have stopped for a minute, take a breath, but I just kept moving.

And David recorded straight through, about three hours' worth of stuff. Then we just did some editing and picked out the things that were the strongest.

What I discovered was, when you're playing solo, you need to go to that space inside yourself where you have your center. You need to go there right away; you don't have time to wait for that focus. You have to be able to get to it immediately because there's nobody else with you!

I've done a few solo things since then and that's really been the key. Doing the solo record taught me that once you find that place, then you can do it all by yourself.

You know, one of my favorite bass players is Joelle Leandre. When I see her play, she does that immediately, and it's a wonderful thing to watch her. The minute she starts, you can see this woman go inside herself and find that place—she's no longer in the conscious world. It's just her in that place and her bass. And she stays in that place until she's done. That's what's needed when you play solo.

I brought her up because my partner Jos? and I went to see her play not too long ago, and that was the thing I saw. I could see it happening. I don't know if your consciousness goes up, or it comes down, but it goes somewhere where it's not present in the conscious reality. There's another zone that you create. And that was the biggest lesson about trying to do something solo.

AAJ: It sounds like that's a place that she can go to every time. Do you think you can always do that if you had to?

Joe Fonda / Forever RealJF: I think it has to be developed. I truly do. I think she's an individual who has played solo for a lot of her life and she knows what it takes. First, you have to be someone who improvises freely, without compositional preconceptions. Well, that might not be true, because I've seen Hank Jones do it too when he's playing "Stella By Starlight!" And he can go to that place. But there is some truth that when you're improvising in a free context, in order to make that vibrate—my experience is that you have to know how to go inside yourself and find your center.

I've had that problem playing with some other jazz musicians who haven't spent a lot of time in a free context or a collective context; they're always listening to what everyone's doing and reacting. That music doesn't work, and solo music doesn't work, in that approach. To play that way, you have to go inside to find your center. You have to get your wheels turning, and then the connections start to happen on another level. If you're too busy paying attention, and listening to what everyone's doing around you, you never get your own focus and you never start your own momentum.

And I have had that problem when I've worked with folks and we say, "Okay, let's improvise something freely." You can feel who knows how to go to that place and who doesn't. And solo, in my opinion, it's also really important that you can go inside yourself and start your own wheels turning, your own focus, your own momentum. You can't go on listening to what's going on around you. That's a different focus to develop.

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