Reprinted with permission. Copyright © All About Jazz and Nils Jacobson.
December 2000 by Nils Jacobson for All About Jazz
Let’s start this interview in reverse and go from there. What are you doing right now? What kind of records are you thinking about putting out? Are you going on tour? What’s new and upcoming?
Well, I can tell you what’s up and coming. Here’s a new project. We started this thing... we’re going on tour in March with a group called Conference Call. It’s a group with Matt Wilson, Gebhard Ullmann, and Michael Stevens. It’s a new project that’s exciting in the fact that the combination of personalities is very interesting to me. Because you have Gebhard Ullmann on one end, and then you have me and Michael kind of in the middle, and then you’ve got this cat Matt Wilson who brings in all the humor. So it’s almost like a group that covers — not a complete spectrum — but a large area of possibilities, you know... from a very serious sort of approach to music to a very creative one. And then added in is this whole humor thing, but in a very natural way, you know, because that’s really who Matt is. He’s an incredibly creative person, but he has this sense of theater, and I actually gravitate towards that, too. We did one tour already, about six months ago. And it was very enlightening to see where the relationships lie... with Michael and me kind of in the middle. But I was always very easily gravitating toward Matt’s theatrical reality. Whereas Michael gravitated toward Gebhard’s more serious approach to the music. So it was interesting the way we would intermix the possibilities of where one person might go and another person might not. I have a theatrical sense of things also, and I was really able to bring that out. That’s one of the newest projects at the moment. A European tour.
But a year from now, we have something already started in California, so we’ve actually — Michael and I have also — started to look into finding work in our own country. You know, everybody’s been pushing the European thing so heavy. I think it was Gerry Hemingway who did something a few years ago in America, and it showed us all that if you wanted to put the time into it, maybe you could find some work here... and bring the music to the people here, also. It’s harder, but there are possibilities, you know?
That’s a problem for a lot of creative musicians. There’s a much bigger market in Europe for this kind of thing, for both performance and recording.
Yeah, there is.
Why do you think that is?
One reason is that for art in general in Europe, is that, because of it being old, there’s more culture and there’s more history. There’s still a sense of interest in art — that art is important — since art again connects to a whole sense of having history. So that attitude might be the primary one. In their culture, there’s a sense that art is important, that art is part of their life. It always has been, for hundreds of years. Whereas in America, everything’s so new.
It’s interesting, because in this country, New York is definitely the hub for that sort of thing. There’s much more market availability for performance there.
That’s true, I guess. It’s the artistic center of America, you know? But New York’s a struggle too, because there are so many people, so many artists... Even though there’s a lot of work, it’s spread so thin. But it’s the energy that makes it the place that it is.
When you play in Europe, do you do things differently?
I remember something someone told me once when I first went. He said [hushed voice], "Hey, take your tape recorder, and then tape the music! Because man, you play different there." That was when I first started to go, and now I understand what he meant. It’s simply because if you have an appreciative audience, there’s a give-and-take, and a communication between the artist and the audience, that affects the music. And you can have that there, where you can’t always here... Not all the time, but some times in America, you don’t get it because people don’t have that appreciation. That’s what makes you do anything different. In Europe they allow you to deliver the music on a different level, because they’re there with you. That’s what changes it.
The great irony is that a lot of the records you have out are on European labels — which probably makes them less available here. And that must bias people, because they’ve had more of a chance to hear you.
Yeah, that’s true. I think the only American label we had was Music & Arts, on the first few Fonda/Stevens Group records. And it folded. So that just goes back to what I said earlier. There’s a bigger support system for creative music — or whatever you want to call it — there than there is here. There’s a bunch of new labels now in this country, you know, but they’re still not doing what Leo’s doing... OmniTone and Palmetto, for example. They’re putting out some nice music, but they’re careful not to go too far to the outside edge.
I guess you gotta stay afloat.
Yeah, maybe. Sure, that’s a concern for them.
The American listener really has to make an effort to check out what you do, because a lot of these labels aren’t to be found in the average store. You’ve got to get them somewhere special.
That’s true. It’s a shame. Conference Call has a CD now that we’re selling [Final Answer], but we’re trying to get it with an American label, just so that we get the thing into the American market.
Speaking of records, your recorded output has gone way up in the last five years or so. There’s a lot more Fonda records out there.
Yeah, that’s really true.
OK. Let’s switch gears a bit. You’ve talked before about how you have a special affinity with drummers, and you approach the bass from a rhythmic standpoint. But a lot of freer-playing bassists use extended techniques. They’re playing rhythm — they’re slapping the body of their instrument. They do a lot of this tap-and-slap thing. But for the most part, you’re playing the strings. Is there a reason for that?
It’s true that I have a strong relationship with drummers. I always have. And my approach is very percussive and rhythmic. But I’m a sound conceptualist. I think of music in terms of sound.
What do you mean by that?
Well, you talk about a lot of those other guys slapping the bass. One of the things that I do that is extended is — I’m always searching for sounds on the instrument — where I’ll bow underneath the bass, where the there’s that wire down there that connects to the tailpin. I’ll bow this.
But I’m always searching for sounds. It’s a kind of textural consciousness. One thing I do differently from someone who always thinks percussive is I am very texturally conscious. That would mean I would look for sounds which create a sort of palette. Whereas if it they were strictly percussive, they will tend to have a, not a monotone... but your textural thing won’t be so extreme. But I’m very conscious of texture, and I hear music in thicknesses and thinnesses. So maybe I play the strings more because it allows me to search for those sorts of things. Harmonic things combined with rhythm, or... I’m definitely a texturally aware musician, which connects again to the sound concept.
For this sound concept, do you have an image in your mind?
I think it has to do with an affinity for hearing music not in a linear, or even a metric-rhythmic way... but in the sense of a sound. Just a sound. How do I break down a sound? I know a lot of people think linearly, harmonically or melodically. Sun Ra put it once — his musicians were "tone scientists." I understand exactly what he was talking about. It’s just another way of thinking about, or organizing, the music or the elements. I can hear someone scrape across the table, and I can hear the music in it, whereas somebody else might just hear it as a scrape across the table. So it’s an affinity for that type of thing. I’ve always had it. I think some cats have that, you know? Roscoe Mitchell definitely has that. Braxton has it, Ra had it. You know, they were thinking about music from a sound perspective, not a linear, or harmonic, or vertical structure.
I think that’s more possible when you’re playing in a group. There are more dimensions going on at the same time. But you also made a solo record [When It’s Time], and that’s just you. The textures are made by you with yourself. That’s a totally different deal, right?
Yeah. When you have to do it by yourself, it’s a totally different deal.
What’s the solution there?
Well, let’s talk about it in that sense. You’re much more limited. This is true. When you’re playing by yourself, you’re much more limited. So you can still achieve texture — and I still did on the solo record — but the textures become different. Not thinner, but... I didn’t do any overdubbing. If I had done overdubbing, then I could have created another kind of textural reality. But I just played the music down... You have to work even harder. You have to dig even deeper, and become even more selfless, so the instrument and the music will give you something when you’re all by yourself.
So you imply things without stating them explicitly.
That’s a technique in itself in creating textures: not being too literal. That process of being literal eliminates, in my opinion, texture and mystery and dimension. I’ve always gravitated towards not being too literal. I hesitate, because I remember that when I’m dealing with time, I’m sometimes trying to play something that grooves. Then I become so literal. In order for me to get the feeling I want to get when I’m playing time, if I’m after some kind of groove, I need to be literal. So I’m aware of both situations. But when you’re looking for texture, this thing of not being too literal is a a very important element.
Part of that idea comes from the African concept of texture, where space represents something just as much as a note represents something. The texture that you get out of an African rhythm ensemble is something else...
That’s true. I would probably say that the African music tradition is rooted in a non-Western way of thinking, which has to do with sound and texture and different realities. I’m sure of it.
And also the subjugation of the individual to the benefit of the group. Western music tends to be very individualistic. In a group like that, the idea is to make a point together, instead of being the best musician per se.
That element in itself is a whole nother point. It has nothing to do with your individual talents or ego or anything, it’s about people coming together for a higher purpose — which is very refreshing. It’s funny, because I just got off the phone with Brenda Bufalino, who’s the tap dancer I work with. We just had a concert in Lisbon with the From the Source group. And we were both saying that that’s that idea drives the group, because of this woman in the group who’s a healer and does the vocals [Vickie Dodd]. If we’re gonna really play or create music with this woman, then we have to forget about being professional musicians, and forget about our ego, and throw all this stuff out the window... and come at the thing in a totally spiritual direction, in a totally selfless way, for it to work. Because this woman can only connect if that’s happening. We had some trouble on this last gig, because we didn’t take the time, before we even started, to establish what this whole thing was about. So it turned into just another gig, and we missed an opportunity to forget about "another gig," and do something in the same way that you mentioned African cultures come together to create something. That can be so refreshing. You don’t get it very often in the Western world, because there’s so much of that ego. You know, "I’m this!" and "I’m that!" That’s what it’s all about. That sort of mentality.
The other thing that’s striking about that group is that you have a dancer in there. That must be kind of hard to record. It’s the sort of thing where you’d probably get a lot more out of watching the performance than strictly listening to it.
That’s true, in some sense. Tap dancing is so... the rhythms that this woman is playing are heavy. Her rhythmical stuff, and her entire musical thing, is very heavy. But because she’s a tap dancer, folks still think of it more in a visual sense. So I guess as people we have to learn to just focus on what comes out musically. Through the years, the jazz drummers and the tap dancers were all hooked up. And they were all sharing information and rhythmical stuff. I mean Max knew all the tap dancers. He knew Sandman Simms, and Sandman Simms knew Max. And they were sharing the information because they were all developing this stuff. So they could hear what was happening with the dancers. I still have people today who hear the record and think, "What’s this click-clicking stuff going on?" I’ve had cats say, "I don’t get it, Joe, what’s this click-click-click?" All I can say is man, you gotta keep listening, because you’re not getting it.
I would think that just because it’s a weight-bearing process to tap dance, it would be a lot easier to get the same essence out of a set of drums. You’d have more freedom of motion.
Yeah, maybe. But you know, this stuff she does with her feet, I haven’t heard any drummer ever do. And it’s also just the principle that this is a person’s legs, just two legs making this, so it has a whole different weight to it, a whole different reality to it, than a man or woman sitting down in front of a set of drums and using all four limbs. For me, I’ve always been moved by tap dancers, so when I listen to the record [From the Source], it fascinates me. So I’m not sure. I wouldn’t agree you’d get the same thing. I know you’d not get the same thing out of a set of drums that she gets out of her feet, in an exact sense. You know, she could show the drummer some of her rhythms, and he could play them (and vice-versa), but the feeling is quite different. Just in the sense of weight, to use the word you chose. But it’s much lighter as a dance, and a much lighter way of playing rhythm. The rhythms are deep, you know?
So I love it. Certainly a refreshing compared to the usual staple of rhythm you normally get out of a jazz band, or improvised group, or whatever you want to call it.
One thing I’ve noticed is you hum a lot. You sing, sort of, when you’re playing. A lot of musicians do that. Is that because you’re putting so much effort into detaching your brain from anything else so that you can concentrate, or is it just something you can’t help?
For me it’s something that just happened. Never even thought about it, never even tried to do it. It just happened through my development as a bass player. It just came, and I never shut it down. Even though there’ve been times where people said, "Man! Shut up, will you?" Some people don’t hire me because I make too much noise with my voice. But that’s OK. Some people do just the opposite. I can’t do it any other way, actually. But I think it’s pretty much the same thing when I listen to Erroll Garner and he’s humming. I almost feel like it’s part of the process, you know? The only time I feel like it’s a preconceived thing is when George Benson is doing his thing. But that’s another kind of thing, where he can sing all his stuff. The kind of thing that I do, that Erroll Garner did, it comes from the whole process of trying to get the energy happening inside the music, you know? The same with Keith Jarrett. Slam Stewart and those cats, they actually sang the exact lines they were playing, which was something different maybe. Slam used to sing in harmony with himself, and man, that was a heavy pitch thing going. My process is a little different, because it has more to do with the energy, I think. It’s the way I keep the energy connected in my body and send it through the music, you know? Again, it’s very natural. I never tried to do it, it just came that way.
Although, on this new Leo duo disc with Xu Fengxia [Distance], you’re doing some vocals straight up.
Yeah, I’m actually doing some singing. I like that. I was trying to sing some part — I don’t know what it was — but I was making something up, my version of Pavarotti or something. That’s just being comfortable with the process of singing. I’ve played in a lot of blues bands and I’ve done a lot of singing, even though I’m not a singer. But I’m comfortable with letting that go. Maybe it’s connected, too. I’m comfortable with letting the sound come out of my mouth. I have become comfortable with that, so I use it. I use it in all my groups now. The Fonda/Stevens group — I got the guy singing some songs. And Conference Call — there’s a couple of songs on this new CD [Final Answer] where we were singing. So it’s part of the music. I’m glad that I got to play with enough bands, probably the blues bands, where we sang.
You mentioned Braxton, and the sonic field he shares with you. A lot of people think he’s just crazy — and that doesn’t include me — because a lot of his music is so abstract. People don’t get it. I’m curious what you think about that. You’ve played a lot with him. What’s going on in Braxton’s music?
I’ll tell you what’s going on. First of all, he’s a genius. This is how I see it. Second, Braxton is a channel for creativity. He is so connected with that. For me it’s like the universe sending him the information so that he can put it out there for the rest of us. He’s one of the artists that the universe is sending the music through. For me it’s never been abstract. The first time I heard it, I understood exactly what was happening.
Imagine if you took the layperson into outer space. And you just let them experience how things happen in outer space, where these chemicals come together, and this asteroid comes by. That stuff ain’t organized in 4/4, it ain’t organized on a C major scale. It’s just the universe and its sounds and its elements coming together, mixing, and creating these wonderful colors and these wonderful gases. And then they evaporate... That’s the music of the universe. So to me, that’s what Braxton’s music is all about. He gives that to us.
I’m trying to explain why I think folks might not get it. A lot of folks have gotten it, because he has a huge audience in the world. But the average guy might not get it. Why not? Not that everything’s for everybody, but... I don’t know. I would say the people who don’t get it are shut down. I’ll phrase it that way. If you don’t get Mr. Braxton’s music, my opinion is you’re probably shut down. Somewhere in your life you’ve been very shut down. Because if you weren’t, and you were open, and you were moving in a natural and healthy way, the music would touch you.
So it’s a matter of expectation. If you’re looking for something specific, and you’re not open to all the rest, you’ll miss out.
Expectations are dangerous in all contexts, and this one as well. He’s constantly moving and changing. I remember some people, when Anthony started the Ghost Trance Music, weren’t even ready for that. They were still trying to ingest the stuff he did ten years ago. It’s funny... they talk about him like they did with Coltrane. Coltrane moved so fast that people couldn’t keep up with him! Before they ingested the stuff he did at this point, he was already on to something else. Coltrane and Braxton travel in a similar path, in terms of how quickly they move and how the information is coming through them, you know.
So how do you relate, or react, to that? Playing in a duo setting, for example [10 Compositions (Duet) 1995].
I find it inspiring. People like Anthony bring the best out in you. They’re able to take you places, and able to help you find things in yourself that you couldn’t find on your own. I remember Miles [Davis] would talk about that, too, in interviews. He was able to bring something out in people that they couldn’t find in themselves, just because of his mastery. So when I was playing with Anthony, things would happen that would only happen with his guidance. I see it all the time. When he’s playing with his students, I see things happen with his students where it’s obvious that they’re on the ship and he’s taking them with him. Because it’s his journey, you know. He can bring you places where you can’t go on your own! But then once you learn it, you can go on your own. So I find it inspiring. I would like to play with him for the rest of my life. There’s very few cats like that. The guys who are true masters. They give you something that’s so powerful. Imagine all those cats staying with Sun Ra all those years. They only did that because Ra had something very powerful and very special, and they were all taking this journey together. That whole orchestra stayed together for all those years because of Ra’s power. He could take them places. It’s so priceless.
Who else belongs in that category?
Leo Smith also had that quality. Those are the two that I’ve worked with who have had that quality. But I’ve played with all sorts of great musicians. Anybody you play with who knows more than you, who is functioning on a higher level, can raise your consciousness. That’s why that tradition is so important — where the older musicians play with the younger, and pass this thing on. That tradition is such an important one because that’s part of the process. When I played with Bill Barron, it was the same thing. He was able to take us places we couldn’t go, because he was aware of that. And when I played with Charlie Persip and Kenny McIntyre, I was much younger and they had this thing already fine-tuned. And when the music started, you held on to their tail. You jumped on their boat. You did your thing the best you could, and you traveled with them. And if you do that for a long enough time, then you get your strength, and you can do the same thing with some younger musicians, folks just learning.
I guess the idea is not to ever let go of your humility.
I agree. It’s an important element.
I wanted to get back to something you said earlier about texture, and how it’s a different matter when you’re playing by yourself. One of the more interesting records I heard recently was a solo disc by Mark Whitecage [Turning Point] where he does the electronic thing.
Yeah, I heard that one too. I loved it!
A lot of musicians (even straightforward acoustic jazz musicians) are turning toward electronics for the ability to achieve texture. What’s your experience with that?
I haven’t really done that... maybe in the future. But I love that record. I heard that too. That thing that Mark did was fantastic! So it does open you up to some other possibilities. But I haven’t done anything like that on my own. I’ve done prepared bass stuff, where I put things between the strings and stuff. It was not like adding some electronic pedals to my bass, but the concept is the same: altering the natural sounds so you can find an alternative sound. Who knows, maybe on the next record I’ll be wired up!
You talked about blues-oriented music, or stuff with a groove. In that style you have to make more of an effort to be "literal." There was a period when you indulged heavily in the blues. How does that belong in the style you’re playing now? There are a couple points on the Fengzia duo record [Distance] where you’ve got a pretty obvious groove going on. But there are lots of other places where it’s not so obvious.
It’s funny, because there are some places on the record with Xu... She’s also played rock music in China. She was a drummer and a guitar player in a rock band in China. She used to play Hendrix and stuff. She told me that. We actually did our first gig before I knew that about her, but I heard that in her playing. It was so interesting — I couldn’t figure out how she was getting it. Because I figured, OK, she’s from Shanghai... the stuff from Shanghai made sense to me. But when she did these other things, man, I was like "Where does she get that stuff from? It’s so funky!" And then her husband told me she was doing this stuff in China...
There’s the so-called blues sound, or the blues feel. On that record we did it, but it never got really literal. It never got right into [sings] boom-ba-chinga, boom-ba-chinga. Going for that thing you get from playing with James Cotton. It was implied. It still had a sense of mystery about it... are they doing it, or are they not really doing it?
How do you imply that? Is it a feeling, or some kind of ambivalent harmony? How do you play the blues when you’re not really playing the blues?
You take the blues and take the music that she brought from Shanghai. We dump it in a jar and we shake it up, so you’ve got these little pieces of blues stuck inside this traditional Chinese music, you know. So all of a sudden, this little thing pops out and says, "I’m the blues!" that lasts for two seconds. Then all of a sudden this thing pops up that says, "I’m from Shanghai!" And you hear that, and it goes on, goes back and forth. So you’ve got these little snippets of things that imply this or imply that, but don’t stay around long enough to become literal. So you hear a question, but you might not get the answer. And if you’ve got a question and then you don’t get the answer, then there’s some mystery... like you’re still thinking, "I heard this question, but what’s the answer?" I would say it’s something like this: if you’ve got just the blues or just the music from Shanghai and you play that, it’s very clear what it is. This is a way of keeping things not so literal... disguised, in some way. Which creates the mystery. I love things that are literal also, but with the other kind of music that’s some of its special power.
So that’s how you do it. By knowing what it is, and knowing the point where it becomes literal, or knowing the point where it stays more open. Once you get too literal, then it’s not too open any more. You could be grooving so hard you can’t sit in your chair. But it’s no longer open in the same sense of having freedom. When you don’t define it completely, then you have more room to move. That’s what the free music, and the stuff that came up in the ’60s and ’70s, was about, in my opinion. It was about a way of incorporating composition, and then playing music, but finding a way of keeping it open — so it could easily move. Because once you hit that thing, if it’s [sings] be-bang-shang be-bang-boom ba-chang ba-boom, you know, you’re right in it. It doesn’t allow you the same movement. That’s why you just gotta groove it. That’s where the power is, at that point. Does that make sense?
Yeah. The larger question, which I implied but did not state, is what is this so-called essence of the blues? You said it was a thing about question and answer.
Like that call-and-response thing?
Yeah. And that’s definitely an element. But it’s also interesting how you break it down into different parts. And certain parts assume more weight, or get carried along when the other ones get left behind.
Definitely. That’s why I can hear the blues in almost everything. I hear this call-and-response thing in Braxton’s music. I hear it in Albert Ayler. I even hear it in Webern, and I hear it in Stockhausen. This call-and-response thing — I hear it in the birds! The call-and-response thing is everywhere. It’s all the blues, then, I guess. I heard some Portuguese blues the other day. It was called Fado. When we were in Portugal, someone played some Fado. And man, this was the blues. This was the Portuguese blues. So I think we’re inundated with the blues. It’s everywhere. I think folks just gotta open up their ears a little wider to hear it everywhere.
There’s this relationship between a formally structured music, and amore open kind of music. A lot of the stuff you do, especially with the Fonda-Stevens Group, is kind of in-and-out. You can pick out parts there that are pretty straightahead, and other parts that are free.
Yes, very true.
But that’s also something that causes people trouble. People who are in tune with the straightahead don’t dig the other stuff, and people who dig the other stuff think it should be separate.
We’ve run into that problem with the Fonda-Stevens Group. But that’s what that band is about. It’s about a group of guys who straddle the divide, so to speak. It also has to do with Michael’s music and my music. We compose the music for the group, so those are the vehicles we use. And Michael, being a pianist, really draws from the piano. He writes a very harmonic-melodic type of music, although he allows the group to open his stuff up. I’m a little farther out, you might say, in my compositional sense. We mix these two things together, because we’re interested in playing with each other, and we end up with this group that has all of that stuff together.
And for me it works, because I have a relationship with all of that. I might not do it in my own group. I might not do it in the same way the Fonda-Stevens Group does it. But it’s partly the result of Michael Stevens’s reality and mine, combined, that creates that musical diversity. It’s pretty extreme. We go from the innest thing to the outest thing, and everything in between. And those who like it — they can have it. Those who don’t — they can stay home! That’s what that group is about. I like that, actually. That’s one of the unique things about that group.
It definitely makes things more interesting. If you take somebody like Anthony Braxton, he’ll do standards or he’ll do his own compositions, and there’s a world of difference. It’s very rare that you go from "Stella By Starlight" into Composition #173. It just doesn’t really happen.
That would never happen. He’ll always keep that very separate. You buy a Braxton record and it’ll be a record of standards, if he’s playing standards. It won’t be a record of "Stella By Starlight," then Composition #90, together. Which the Fonda-Stevens Group might do. They might do #90 by Anthony, but the next tune is some version of "Stella By Starlight." Pretty eclectic, you know? And it could drive some people nuts.
Absolutely. I’m sure it does. If more people bought that record, it would probably drive more of them nuts. But these things are hard to get. It’s not in your local chain store bin.
Well, Leo has some new distribution, so I’m hoping... I can’t remember who it was, but it’s a good American distributor, so hopefully his stuff might start making it in there.
You were talking about composing. That’s one of the fun things about jazz. There’s a very fuzzy boundary between composition and improvisation. How do you go after things differently when it’s your composition? How do you justify composing, when you could be simultaneously composing and improvising?
For me, one of the important factors of writing music and bringing that to your group, or to your situation — instead of just leaving it open for improvisation — is it allows, or directs the music. It gives you other possibilities. I think that when I’m playing totally free, there’s a certain area where I usually go. But when someone gives me a composition to play, and still allows for things to happen, I can use the material in the composition to try to go to places where I wouldn’t go if I was just going to improvise. That’s one of the things I like about playing compositions is that it keeps us from just going to the usual places we would go if we were just improvising totally, just making music that was completely improvised. But at the same time... that record with Xu [Distance] was totally improvised, but we thought very compositionally.
You know, it’s true that it does change the direction of the music and give you some other possibilities. It takes some strong cats to get up, night after night, and play totally improvised music. I remember what Sam Rivers, David Holland, and Barry [Altschul] used to do. They were so great. It’s not easy to pull that off. For me, the other element is that it’s another creative process, composing. It’s just another way of getting your creative ideas and thoughts and emotions to come together in some form of expression. I guess it’s just different ways of trying to get to the same thing...
I still believe that the improvisation comes first, and composition is second. It’s like for me, almost, that the composition is born out of the improv. The music of the universe is already happening. It’s already going on, so us humans composing is about taking all that — and the more open you are, the more information you get — taking the music of the universe and trying to organize it in some way. Or trying to put it together in some personal and new way, and see what happens. So for me, the music is already there. The improvisation is connected to that. Composition came after that.
So what does a Fonda composition look like?
Michael had a nice way of phrasing it, when we had an interview in Switzerland. He said, "Joe’s music is like architecture. He thinks very architecturally. There’s these rooms over here, and these rooms over there, and the hallway here." Lately I’ve been trying to actually scale down my thoughts, and come up with some condensed pieces... some smaller things. But in general, in an extended format, musical form fascinates me, and I always see if I can shape it. That idea of them being "architectural" is a good word. Michael writes music right in the song form tradition, where my stuff might be three or four pages long, much more expanded musically and formwise. It would be more about many sections... one section moving to another section, moving to another section. And the sections may be connected, or they may not. I still write in a very traditional Western format. But then there are times when it’ll just be a textural concept. Sometimes there will be a section which is just a concept. It might not be a picture. It could just be some words or something. Like, "Now we invert section A and play it all backwards."
I guess it’s more like roadmaps, you know. In general, my compositions are like roadmaps. You follow the map, you stop here and you stop there. Here’s a nice restaurant — you stop here and eat. And then you might move on. Down here there’s some places where you can hang out with some camels, and ride the camels for a while. And when you’re done with the camel ride, you take a swim. And when you’re done swimming, you end up back where you started, or maybe someplace different. And that’s the end of the journey. Something like that.
Do you look at group improvisation as a social model? How does the interaction you have with other musicians relate to your interactions with the other people you know?
I can say that for me, I’ve always been interested, and still am interested in the collective reality of a group of people, much more than I am interested in the individual realities. That’s very reflective of what I would like to see happen socially in my world. I feel like we’ve moved away from that, and gotten so into this sort of "nuclear" way of being, which is all about the individual. Group improvisation, if your intent is to see what’s happening with the collective reality, is what I would dream and hope for in a social reality. More interaction, more community. What do we have as a group here? Not as individuals. So it can be a reflection of that, if that’s your intent. You can take a bunch of egomaniacs and put them in a room and say, "OK, improvise," and it would end up all about themselves as individuals, really. That does nothing as far as shifting, or contributing to some kind of social change. It really depends on the attitude. But it can be that, I think.
That doesn’t work as well, but as long as you have balance — if you’ve got someone who’s more individualistic, and you’ve got other people who are more willing to give for the benefit of the group, it can work out just fine. The problem with music, and art in general, is you get rewarded for being a star. You don’t get rewarded for being a group player. And so the kind of musicians who focus on collectivism don’t get any stardom.
Tell me about it! That’s interesting. You know, I was talking with Braxton the other day, and we were sort of hitting it like this. He’s a great example of somebody who really moved his whole being into a collective way of approaching the music. When he was hanging out in the ’70s, if you listen to the stuff he was doing with Barry [Altschul] and Dave [Holland], the saxophone stuff was on such a high level. It was burning everybody off the bandstand. No one could touch him, man. He already was way beyond. But he left that, at the beginning of the ’80s, and brought his music much more into a collective reality. And I betcha that’s contributed to less focus on him, less attention. Because they want that stuff you were talking about. They want this guy to step up and play this stuff that just wipes you out. But he already did that.
But that group was a lot more than just Braxton. Dave Holland is an anchor like very few.
He’s one of the greatest. You know, that thing with him and Sam [Rivers], I got some bootlegs from Studio Rivbea... and it was David Holland’s group. It was after Conference of the Birds, so David had these two gigs at Studio Rivbea. Somebody taped them. I don’t know how I got them. But the saxophone playing, both Sam and Anthony, was on such a high level. Going on for a twenty-minute solo, and it was so happening. Every minute was just burning, you know? But he didn’t stay there. He could have stayed right there and done that, but he didn’t. He’s another person who has a global vision that the collective reality of things is really important. And he wants his music to be about that, and it is about that. And that interests him. I did concerts with him later on, in the late ’80s. Before we would start the gig, he would say, "I’m interested in coming up with a good ensemble sound. Let’s stay conscious of the transparent space. Let’s stay conscious of the balance. When you need to take your solos, jump on out and take your solos." But he was always talking about creating an ensemble sound. I probably learned that from him and Leo [Smith], actually. They always had that vision. It’s a good vision.
So how did we get here? I forget what the question was. Oh yeah, the idea of collective improvisation is some kind of social reflection. Yeah, it definitely is. If the intent is there to do that.
It’s sort of out of place. If you leave Western reality and go to African or China, there’s a lot more focus on family, and the group. You belong to a portion of society. You’re not the one... the richest guy, the best-dressed guy, or whatever. Your value as a human is based much more on your sensitivity to the other members of the group.
I agree with you completely. You couldn’t have said it better. That says it all, you know.
You know, I gotta avoid that. I’m just here to ask questions! But it does strike me as out of place. It’s not the way our culture works. How do you deal with that? You gotta make a living, and keep going from day to day, and feel like you’re doing something meaningful. And you’re surrounded by people who have a different vision. Do you feel driven by pursuing your musical vision?
Yeah. I would say "driven" is a good word. Very few of us could hang in here and deal with this unless we couldn’t live without it. Because the economic reality is what it is, you know. I am driven by it. And all the other people who carry on, they’re all driven by it, too.
What does it do for you?
The biggest thing it gives me is that it keeps me connected to truth. And connected to the creativity, which is connected to truth and the source. The universe is constantly being created and recreated. That’s the difference from getting up at 9 and going to the factory and coming home... you might be making boxes at the factory, so that’s creating. But it’s still not the same process, you know?
Are you able to support yourself from this?
Yeah, I’m able to do it with thanks to the generous European market. Hopefully that never changes. Already it’s gotten tougher... if it gets too tough, I might be down at Friendly’s, you know, washing dishes or something. I have a nice scene in New York, also. I work quite a bit in New York. But I couldn’t make it there, doing what I do... I’d have to change my structure if I was going to make a living just in New York. You couldn’t do it just by creative music. If you couldn’t travel — if you didn’t have the European market — you’d have to play Broadway shows or something, like a lot of people do.
Let’s see if we can close out with some other projects that are in the works. This is a brand new project: I’m starting a group which is going to be totally improvised. With Michael Rabinowitz on bassoon, and Steven Bernstein on slide trumpet, and myself, and Harvey Sorgen. We decided not to bring any compositions, but have the music be completely improvised. I’m kind of curious to see — you know how we were talking about collective reality — what kind of relationships all these people have. I have a sense that it could be quite interesting and magical. We have our first gig coming up in a couple of months. I’ve been playing with Michael Rabinowitz for years. I’m also a member of his quartet. There no one who can play bassoon like this man. He’s truly an original. I’m thinking the bassoon and the slide trumpet could be an interesting texture, to get back to that. So that’s the newest little endeavor.
Any other records in the pipeline?
Yeah, actually, the Fonda/Stevens Group is going into the studio again in December. We just finished a tour, and we want to go into the studio and document the music we’ve done on tour [The Healing]. The last three records have been live ones, so this will be the first studio record in probably four years, you know. So it’s time for another studio date. The last one [Live At The Bunker] was with Paul Smoker on trumpet, but this one will be with Herb Robertson.
Reprinted with permission. Copyright © All About Jazz and Nils Jacobson.