Reprinted with permission. Copyright © All About Jazz and Paul Olson.
Summer of 2007 by Paul Olson for All About Jazz, published: May 19, 2008
Bassist 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 Jefry 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 bass player 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 Roberts 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 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.
AAJ: 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.
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.
AAJ: 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.
AAJ: Another recent record of yours is a set you recorded in 2005, Circle the Path (Drip Audio, 2007) by the ZMF Trio, which consists of you and two Vancouver musicians, violinist Jesse Zubot and drummer Jean Martin. It’s a string band, really, and violin and bass can do some great things together, as you’ve shown with your FAB group. You and Jesse write the lion’s share of the material, but everyone composes. Tell me about Jesse and Jean, and what you like about playing with them.
JF: The first thing I like is the fact that they’re not from New York. These two Canadians have their own thing — completely. It’s really nice and refreshing to play with people from other places, because quite often they have their own thing. I’m a New Yorker, so I know what the New York thing is, and believe me, it’s the greatest. But being with Jesse and Jean — they have a different approach, a different aesthetic, and they bring another flair to the music.
So first of all, I like the fact that they’re Canadian and they have their own thing. Second, Jesse is a very unique violin player. He kind of sounds like he comes out of — well, I don’t know if you’d call it Canadian folk music. He told me when he started playing, he played with his father, and they used to do German polka music because there was a big German community where he lived. They would go around doing all the German dances. And I can hear these roots in his music; even when he really moves into a really moves into a very contemporary approach in an improvisation, it still has this deep, rural Canadian reality.
I mean, he comes out of some small town in Saskatchewan. We played a festival up there, and we were driving in the area, and I said, "Man — this is like going through South Dakota or something." It was really, really rural. I really like that element in Jesse’s playing.
Jean Martin, the drummer, is from Toronto. He has a different kind of thing. I don’t know if he’s originally from Toronto. But he has his own approach, too, and it’s unique. They’re both wonderful people who are truly dedicated to their art.
Even Jean Martin’s approach to time is unique. He has a unique way of thinking about pulse that’s different from any other drummer I’ve ever played with.
AAJ: That can have a nutritious effect on your own playing.
JF: Yeah. It changes my playing.
AAJ: I have to ask about FAB, the Fonda Altschul Bang trio that consists of you, drummer Barry Altschul and violinist Billy Bang. You have a couple records, the newest being the Live at the Iron Works, Vancouver (Konnex, 2005) CD. This performance is much more about improvisation, spontaneous group composition, than the FAB Transforming the Space (CIMP, 2003) CD, which preceded it. Of course, when this group improvises together it always sounds like songs — they’re just songs that didn’t exist before they were played.
JF: Our first record was more about compositions. Since then, it’s evolved into a completely-improvised ensemble. Once in a while, we throw in a few pieces that are written by Billy. We do one Cuban piece. But primarily, the music has become totally improvised.
I’d like to say that one of things that’s so amazing for me is the energy level that the three of us play on together. That’s a really strong and unique thing that’s inside that trio. The three of have a very similar energy, a very strong, powerful energy, and when you put the three together, it’s really infectious.
"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!"
And I grew up on Barry Altschul. Playing with Barry is a wonderful thing for me, because when I started listening to this music, I just lived on all those great records that Barry played on. Like Circle, and the early Braxton records, and a lot more. And I’ll tell you something — I used to hear the drums as much I heard anybody playing on any of those records. There was something about Barry’s thing — and it’s still so — that reached me. So it’s a great honor and joy to be working with him.
And as far as Billy goes — Billy is a totally unique musician. He’s true individual with completely his own sound, and a man who can get more emotion out of an instrument than anybody I’ve ever played with. He has the ability to put so much of himself into what he does, and it never ceases to amaze me. I aspire to that level of playing with what they call feeling. Bang has got it.
AAJ: Isn’t that really the ultimate goal for a musician?
JF: I would say so, unless you were overly concerned with technical proficiency or something like that. For me, it’s the ultimate goal. This guy plays violin in a way that is so rhythmical.
It’s really interesting for me, because Billy and Barry both came out of the Bronx — they’re both from the same neighborhood, and they’re both very rhythmical people. Billy plays violin almost like a drum! It’s amazing. He gets so much groove and so much rhythm going out of a violin. I’ve never heard anybody do anything like that.
I really enjoy working with this band, and the music has a way of traveling — when we do a concert, it’s amazing which roads we take and how we get there and where we end up. The group is really three very strong individuals that bring their personalities together. It is a collective, but it also has that element of the three of us coming in as really strong individuals. Then the collective process starts. That’s a unique thing about the band — when you see the FAB Trio, you see those personalities. And somehow, then, the melding begins from that point.
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 sax player Claire Daly, tuba player Joe Daley, bass clarinetist Gebhard 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.
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.
JF: 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.
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 Attila 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.
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?
JF: 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.
AAJ: Well, when you’re solo, there’s nothing to listen to but yourself.
JF: That’s true. And how much can you get inside where it’s just you and that sound?
AAJ: It has to be heart-to-fingers. Not heart-to-head-to-fingers.
JF: No. I would say that "head" has to come out of it.
AAJ: That can take a long time to learn to do.
JF: I think it’s an ongoing lesson.
AAJ: You’re a great bass player, of course, and can improvise with the best of them. But you’re also a composer with a distinctive voice. Is there anything you would say really characterizes your compositions?
JF: My compositions, and my approach, are very architectural. Michael was the one who pointed that out when we were in an interview, and I think it’s true. I don’t play much classical music, but I’ve listened to it a lot, and that’s in there. A lot of my approach comes from spending time listening to classical composers.
So that’s one element. Another is that I think rhythmically first. That’s my primary focus. After that, the other elements come. So the architectural approach, and the rhythmic approach, tend to be primary. And I think that gives my compositions something unique.
AAJ: I always think there’s something special about a musician who started out playing one kind of music and ended up playing another one. You go back to R&B, for example. I think that sort of experience and contrast is really valuable for musicians.
JF: Well, it doesn’t have to be that way. But for me, the fact that I’ve gone through a lot of different musics makes my musical experience richer and gives me more possibilities. I don’t think you have to do that to bring something unique and strong to your music, but it’s been enriching for me. I have all this stuff that I can draw from. I’m grateful for that.
So as a general rule, I would tell a student, "Go and learn everything you can learn. Get inside all the musics that are out there that you’re interested in and develop a relationship with them. Maybe you’ll end up in one place, or another place, depending on what feels best to you. But have all of that knowledge and experience and richness to draw on when you arrive at that place where you think, ’Ah, this is where I want to work.’"
I just think it’s great if you have a relationship with bebop, with R&B, with the blues and classical music. Or polkas. Or if you play in a gamelan ensemble for four or five years. That understanding of what something is can only enrich your life.
I feel the same way about my experience with dancers. So expanding into other areas can also open you up and enrich you. Work with dancers — they can teach you something very special. I’ve learned a lot from the dancers I’ve worked with, tap dancers in particular. I’ve spent a lot of time with Brenda Bufalino and Tony Waag, and there are times when the things I’ve heard them tap find their way into my compositions. I’ll think, "I know where that rhythm came from." I think we should expand ourselves into as many areas as we can while we’re here.
Reprinted with permission.
Copyright © All About Jazz and Paul Olson.