FAB Trio Jams Telepathically

Reprinted with kind permission of the author.

By Alexander Varty, Associate Editor of straight.com Publish Date: 27-May-2004

The first time the FAB Trio met, it was purely an experiment: bassist Joe Fonda had a theory and he wanted to see if he was right. His idea was to assemble a trio with drummer Barry Altschul and violinist Billy Bang: an unusual lineup, to be sure, but one that Fonda intuited would work.

"I guess it was my concept," he relates, calling on his cellphone from a pretour vacation in Oakland, California. "I was organizing a little jazz festival in Connecticut and thought it would be good to try to do something with those two guys. I had played with Billy in another situation a few times, and I had also played with Barry a few times, and for some reason I just thought we might fit well together."

His hunch paid off. The concert was a success, and the group is continuing to work together: last year, it recorded a powerful live CD, Transforming the Space, for the CIMP label, and this year it’s venturing north for the first time, following its show at the prestigious Festival International Musique Actuelle in Victoriaville, Quebec, with an Ironworks Gallery performance on Saturday (May 29).

Joe: Actually, I had a very talented father and a very talented mother. My father was a trumpet player, a very good trumpet player, and my mother was a singer, and it just so happens that they fell in love on the bandstand! They were in the same band, it was during the World War II, and it was a swing band called the Joe Sanders Orchestra. They met on the bandstand, stayed in the band for a few years, and then I think my mother got pregnant, and they decided that it was time to get off the road. They moved to upstate New York, where my father was from — he was from Cherry Valley, so they moved up there. Yeah, my father and mother were both very musical people.

Fonda, a native of upstate New York who’s now based in Brooklyn, cites a number of reasons why these three musicians are so copacetic. First off, he says that he knows Altschul’s musical approach from having grown up listening to the drummer’s records during the 1970s. He’s kept a low profile in recent years, but at one point Altschul was the percussionist of choice for both pianist Chick Corea and saxophonist Anthony Braxton; with his peers Paul Motian and Ed Blackwell, he provided a bridge between the driving rhythms of the post-bop era and the more abstract forms that started coming out of Europe during the 1960s.

Well, you know, it’s interesting. I was into the usual stuff of that age, the Allman Brothers, you know, Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull and Jeff Beck, blah blah blah. But my parents still at that point were playing some Billie Holiday and those records, but we were so hard on them as kids! My mother used to go around singing these beautiful tunes. I still remember her singing [sings], "There Will Never Be Another You." She’d go around the house, but we would say, "Ma! Shut up! I can’t stand it!" And we were on her case so much, she eventually stopped singing. Isn’t that awful? You know, there she was, giving me my early musical education, and I was shutting it down, being a young child, not knowing the value of that. And my kids do the same thing to me today, and I tell ’em, "Forget it. You ain’t stopping me from singing or playing in this house, ’cause I did it to my parents."

And the bassist contends that he has an even closer stylistic relationship with Bang, a fiercely individualistic player whose harrowing musical memoir Vietnam: The Aftermath is one of the greatest achievements in recent jazz history.

"Billy’s approach is much like mine: he’s really emotional, and in the way he approaches improvisation he’s very conscious of the energy and the textural possibilities," Fonda explains. "And I’ve heard Barry’s stuff so much, it’s like the moment he starts I know that language. So the mHusical language that we use is already pre-established; the thing that we’re developing is the telepathic thing. That is what’s happening now. We’re beginning to really move together, on a split-second basis."

Evidence of this is already plentifully apparent on Transforming the Space, which spins between grating dissonance and sweet melody with barely a pause. But that record is based almost entirely on written material, while on the trio’s current tour the emphasis is going to be more on free playing; or, as Fonda prefers to call it, "spontaneous composition".

"We’re still going to play some of Barry’s compositions and some of mine and some of Billy’s, but we’re going to open it up even more," he says. "We’re moving to create more of a balance between preconceived compositions and stuff that we’ll compose right on the spot."

For that to work, Fonda believes that the musicians have to be able to go beyond technical virtuosity and into a realm where the subconscious is making the aesthetic choices. "When you’re improvising, the music is going by faster than your conscious mind can process," he notes. "The minute you start thinking and making conscious decisions, you’re dead. Especially with Billy and Barry: they’re moving on such a fast level that if you stop to think you won’t be on the same boat anymore."

In other words, the players have to open themselves up to the moment, trusting both in their own inspiration and in the support they’ll receive from their bandmates. And in this, the FAB trio has a secret weapon: the Bronx connection.

"Billy and Barry are from the Bronx, and they have that Bronx sensibility," Fonda says. "Man, some of the first rehearsals that we did, I just sat back and watched the two of them interact. Billy’s younger than Barry, but they knew some of the same people and they grew up in the same neighbourhood and that whole Bronx community thing is such a part of them. It’s a real slap-on-the-back brotherhood thing that came out of the Bronx with a lot of musicians, so it’s wonderful to watch that. And that reflects right back into the music.

"It’s amazing how many musicians came out of the Bronx," he adds. "I told them one day that somebody should write a history of the Bronx and all the guys that came out of that community. Somebody has to write that book, but I can’t do it, so you want a job?"

Reprinted with kind permission of the author.