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Operating under the somewhat dubious moniker of FAB, an amalgam of surname initials, the trio of Joe Fonda, Barry Altschul and Billy Bang dispels any concerns as to its sincerity with music of startling intellect and emotion. The Beatles this group is not, but in the context of creative improvised music, that’s a mighty good thing. Fonda claims in the liners that it’s “one of the most enjoyable recording sessions” he’s ever done and producer Bob Rusch makes repeated mention of the jovial atmosphere that infused the Spirit Room during the date, but curiously the music is mostly of a contemplative cast. Both the bassist and Bang approach their instruments from an amplified vantage and the added juice defuses any danger of their strings being subsumed sonically by Altshul’s traps.
The drummer’s “Be Out S’cool” opens the program and Bang wastes no time in shaving off keening arco ribbons from his strings. Fonda plays havoc with the tempo, moving from brisk speed walking plucks to spaced-out floating notes and Altschul breaks up the beat on a variety of surfaces behind him. If there’s a drawback to the disc, it’s probably most prominent in the chosen lengths of some of the pieces, which drag a bit beyond comfortable durations. Fonda’s routine vocalizations, especially prominent in his more flurried fingerboard runs, are another distraction, but one that is easily reconciled by his incredible facility.
Bang’s “The Softness of Light” originates from that unique emotional reservoir where so many of his compositions reside. His style on the violin has antecedents in the swinging ebullience of Stuff Smith, but he brings a somber, blues-informed spiritualism that is wholly his own. It’s the sound of suffering and of joy, those two sides of the coin that is life, and there are few who can tap into it like he can.
Altschul’s “For Papa Jo, Klook & Philly Too” reveals itself as more than a simple paean to that triumvirate of percussionists. Predictably taking wing on an extended solo that furnishes Altschul with space to run a gamut of drumming styles, the piece expands into an ensemble showcase with Bang wailing and torquing away above Altschul’s polyrhythms as Fonda buttresses the action with clever harmonic commentary. “Tales from Da Bronx” starts at a mournful, methodical pace before unfurling in a thicket of prickly arco scribbles that gain density and complexity as Bang’s bow moves with blinding speed. A forceful drum break from Altschul cracks the tension, leaving room for a return to the somber theme and a slow dissolving exit.
The odds of this trio coalescing into a long range-working outfit for all involved are probably slim. But in its studio-only guise, FAB generates a body of music on par with what the players' individual reputations would suggest.