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Joe Fonda: Rhythmic Architect

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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!

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.

AAJ: Your autobiographical motifs.

JF: In some way, yeah. Those sounds really express who I am. For me, that song really has the essence of Joe Fonda in it, and it goes back to the very beginning of my journey as a musician. So I'm really glad you were touched by that piece! It means a lot to me.
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