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Joe Fonda: Rhythmic Architect

Paul Olson By
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When you're playing solo, you need to go right away to that space inside yourself where you have your center. 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!
Joe FondaBassist Joe Fonda has nourished so many groups and projects with his unerring time, deep and constant imagination and rich tone that one struggles to imagine a New York jazz scene that doesn't include him. He's played as a sideman with dozens of great, prominent players (including Anthony Braxton, with whom he played in various musical combinations for 15 years) and has led, and still leads, a number of his own groups—none of them less than worth hearing, and most of them excellent. He's perhaps best known for his co-leadership with pianist Michael Jefrey Stevens of the Fonda/Stevens Group, a band that's produced marvelous work for 15 years.

Fonda's an interesting combination of qualities in that he's both a master of totally free improvisation and a fine composer of vigorously (if uniquely) structured compositions. Actually, that might not be such a paradox, since it may well be what Fonda calls his "architectural" approach to composition that makes his improvised playing so disciplined and structured.

And there is no acoustic bassist on earth with better time than Fonda. The interview says more about his projects, recordings and philosophies than any introduction ever could.

All About Jazz: You've worked in so many groups and situations. There are a couple recent recordings you've done. The first I'll mention is Trio, from the Fonda/Stevens Group, which came out in 2007. The Fonda/Stevens Group is one of the really great bands that are working now, and I think this is the first time you've recorded as a trio. It's just you, Michael Jefry Stevens on piano, and Harvey Sorgen on drums. Trumpeter Herb Robertson isn't present here. It's a great trio, and the album was done live in 2006. I find myself going back to this record. Michael's song "The Search" is a great song and a great performance, and "The Path" is one of my favorite compositions of yours. Why a trio this time, and how does the band change when there are just three of you?

Joe FondaJoe Fonda: The truth is that the reason we did it as a trio was economic. We had to make a choice—we had a tour, and it was either to scale it down and do it, or cancel. And cancelling is never a good idea; you don't want to burn bridges. You want to build bridges. So we said, "Okay, let's try it as a trio."

I guess you could say it was an experiment. We'd never done it before. We started as a quintet with [reeds player] Mark Whitecage. Mark was in the band for five years. Then Mark decided to leave to do his own thing, and so we said, "What are we doing to do? Get another horn player? No, let's carry on as a quartet."

And we didn't know how the music would evolve, and so that was an experiment too. But we tried it and were able to carry on as a quartet and carry on a language and a relationship without the alto. And things shifted—different people had to take on different responsibilities. But we found out it worked quite well and actually brought a freshness to the music in terms of the amount of space and the way we adjusted the compositions.

And here the same thing happened when we decided to do it as a trio. We weren't sure how to make it work, but we said, "okay, let's pick the compositions and make some arrangements and go for it." And it was pretty successful and the record is a documentation of that. I mean, Mark was an essential part and Herb is also a very essential part. But doing this as a trio showed us that the core was really the rhythm section. We were really able to keep the feeling and the Fonda/Stevens concept happening without any horn on top.

I guess it was reaffirming for us that it can be done in any configuration. Who knows—next thing could be Michael and me alone. We're thinking of doing a duo recording. And again, we're thinking, "Okay, how can we do it and keep the sound and concept of Fonda/Stevens as a duo?" We're actually going to make that step next.

You know, in a lot of situations, the rhythm section is often the foundation, the core. And that was a real realization for us. I think we had a sense that would be true, but that tour and that album really clarified it for us.

Joe Fonda / Michael MusillamiAAJ: Yeah, it's some living proof, isn't it?

JF: That it is. Living proof that things can be done in different configurations without losing the essence of what something is.

AAJ: Well, I remember when the drummer quit the rock band R.E.M., one of them said something like, "Well, is a three-legged dog still a dog? It is—it just has to learn to walk a little differently."

JF: I think that's true. We started with five legs, went to four, went to three—and we kept on walking!

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