1998: Charles Hutchinson for Jazz Now
Joe Fonda: A Country Boy’s Philososphy of Inclusion
By Charles Hutchinson
Jazz Now November 1998
If there’s one thing that Joe Fonda’s emphatic about, it’s the philosophy of inclusion. "We live in a time of evolution," says the bassist-composer-bandleader. "We’ve got the Lincoln Center people who are saying this is the music and the rest of the continuum isn’t. There’s too much of that. I’ve always been attracted to the whole continuum. For me there’s no separation between Bill Evans and Cecil Taylor or Sun Ra and Charlie Parker."
Fonda’s expansive vision extends beyond the boundaries of Jazz, even music — at least as many of us know it. As an example, take a look at one of his recent projects, a CD called From the Source (Konnex). Here within an ensemble that includes Anthony Braxton and Herb Robertson are two participants one doesn’t expect to find in a recording studio. One of them is tap dancer Brenda Bufalino. Writes Fonda in the recording’s liner notes, "during this session we bridged the gap that exists between the dance world and the music world by making [Bufalino] an equal part of our ensemble. She was incorporated into the collective group for her sounds, her rhythms, her tones, her time, and her music — not for her visual presence which historically has so often been the reason for bringing musicians and dancers together. Here we come together as equals. No one is, per se, the accompanist for someone else, or some small twenty-minute addition to the show in order to bring some variety to the program."
Just as audacious is the participation of Vickie Dodd, a body-healer by trade who speaks in tongues. Fonda comments: "I had visited Vickie a year or so ago prior to this session because I heard of her work, and my body was hurting. The work she did on me that day was incredible, but the music that came from this woman’s voice while she was working on me was like nothing I had ever heard before. It was so cosmic, so powerful, that I never forgot it." Dodd’s presence, argues Fonda, helps to forge a connection on the album "between the healing arts and the performing arts. [They] belong together as they were in the past. When they are joined together you truly have a tool that can be used for transformation."
He’s also proud of the fact "that we had both men and women come together to create this music. So often it’s been the boys with the boys and the girls with the girls. It’s so clear to me [that in the music here] there’s both male and female reality to it."
All of which is a pretty hefty load to lay on the music, but From the Source is a consistently surprising and engaging document, the sound of six performers creating a one-of-a-kind dialogue. And it hardly represents the limits of Fonda’s vision. Back in the eighties, "before the grant money dried up," he once formed a group with five musicians, a painter, a sculptor, a dancer, and a chef — all cooking, all dancing, all playing on stage!
Fonda is probably best known for his work with Anthony Braxton, an association that dates back to 1993. Since then, he’s been involved in just about every facet of the auteur’s music, from the large-scale opera and theater works right down to the intimate duo recording Ten Compositions 1995 (Konnex). Braxton has been a signal inspiration for Fonda. "His music is incredible, full of life and forward motion, and the purpose and intent is even greater." Quizzed about an upcoming Braxton concert this fall, Fonda thought it would be a gig for the ten-to-twelve piece "Ghost Trance" band, but admitted that "with Anthony, you never know, because he might have some new ideas and want to do something completely different. With Anthony, I leave myself open."
I’m just a country boy who gravitated to the city," is the sly way the forty-three-year-old bassist describes himself. He grew up in the middle of upstate New York’s dairy country in a town called Amsterdam. His mother and father had once been professional musicians (vocals and trumpet, respectively) for bands in the Midwest, but gave it up when they moved east. So Fonda’s musical development took a more familiar route. "Like most children of the sixties," he says, "I played the guitar." Banging it out in the garage bands of the period, he eventually took up the electric bass because no one else wanted to play it. His introduction to Jazz came on his eighteenth birthday when someone gave him albums by Weather Report and Freddie Hubbard. These were fresh sounds to Fonda and he was soon hooked. By his twenties, he was woodshedding on an upright bass with a housemate named Steve McCraven, a drummer now affiliated with Archie Shepp. "Sometimes we’d play time all day. I can still hear this man’s groove in my head."
The country boy didn’t actually make it to New York City until well after he had established himself as a professional musician. One reason for the delay had to do with the unusually rich climate for Jazz around New Haven, Connecticut, in the early to mideighties. Fonda played with Bill and Kenny Barron, Bobby Naughton, and Teddy Charles and was a musical instructor at Jackie and Dolly McLean’s Hartford Artists Collective, a community center for the town’s underprivileged youths.
But his key association in those years was with trumpeter-composer Leo Smith and his Creative Musicians Improvisers Forum. Smith "is one of our unsung heroes," says Fonda, "a true innovator. Leo made you play things that were not the norm for a bassist." To this day Fonda is especially proud of his participation with Smith’s 1984 recording Procession of the Great Ancestry (Chief). Talking about his two mentors, Fonda points out that "Leo and Anthony were buddied up in the sixties. Their concepts and their ways of thinking are really similar. Leo always has a world vision of the music. Anthony is the same way." And judging by the lifework of their key disciple, the lesson clearly hasn’t been lost on Joe Fonda.
1998 © JazzNow