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CHRIS SEARLE ON JAZZ A palaver of great musical intensity

CHRIS SEARLE reviews Loaded Basses by Joe Fonda’s Bottoms Out (CIMP 343)

“I’D BEEN hearing this music in my head for low instruments over years. I can tell you, as a composer, when the music comes to me without being at a piano, bass or guitar, it’s the best and most powerful music that I have and it doesn’t happen that often but when it does, it’s powerful.”

This was the prime bassist Joe Fonda (born in Amsterdam, New York, in 1954) talking about his tunes on a proposed album on the Creative Improvised Music Projects (CIMP) label in 2005, as he assembled an extraordinary band of “low instrument” musicians to complement his bass.

New Yorkers Claire Daly and Joe Daley blowing their baritone saxophone and tuba respectively; Michael Rabinowitz and his bassoon with drummer Gerry Hemingway, both from New Haven, Connecticut, plus the German bass clarinet virtuoso Gebhard Ullmann.

Performing together, in terms of their collective pitch, as an ensemble they represented an unusual improvising amalgam — not quite the lowest of the low, but near enough to it.

Fonda is anything but fearful of taking musical risks — the last record of his that I bought was his astonishing duo album with the Chinese guzheng virtuoso Xu Fengxia called Distance, on the Leo label. But the four tracks of Loaded Basses are audacity indeed.

The long opening title track segues into a tribute to the New York alto-saxophonist Thomas Chapin, who died of leukaemia in 1998. Fonda’s eternally twanging plucked strings open the track with Hemingway’s relentless hand-drumming urging on the ensemble of horns with a rhapsodising burst from Ullmann’s bass clarinet. The palaver is intense with the collective cries of loss for a departed troubadour and his music.

Breakdown is the shortest track, just eight minutes long, full of low density from the horns and Hemingway’s crackling stop-time drums. Ullmann’s bass clarinet is in particular robust fettle, but it is the haunting ensemble power of the piece which impresses with Daley’s tuba its pounding brass bedrock.

A lowdown confabulation of bassoon, baritone and bass clarinet is at the bluesy centre of Rocks in My Head. Daly’s grumbling baritone gives out a worrisome testimony before the powerful perturbation of Fonda’s vibrato creates other subliminal anxieties at the hear of the sound.

In an era of war, destruction and slaughter in Iraq, this sextet’s music moves out of the studio setting of CIMP’s rural New York Spirit Room into the very heart of the real and conflict-driven world. There is no escapism for these musicians as the sonic thoughts of real events assault the ears and the consciousness. For this is 2005 and this is the United States and these musicians’ sounds hide nothing.

The final track is the album’s longest, another of Fonda’s pieces, called Brown Bagging It, as if all the US’s complexities could be held in a loaded grocery bag.

Hemingway is the prime instigator here, and his drums are everywhere, his snares rattling behind all the soloists, one by one, with the sheer excitation of Fonda’s strings urging them forward. Daly’s romping clarinet upsurge and Daley’s stomping tuba followed by Rabinowitz’s stomping bassoon.

In his brief sleeve notes Fonda describes this session as “one of the highlights of my musical life,” and his bass dances alongside the horns, his voice also leaps out, unable to contain the excitement of his bandmates’ sounds all around him: “Yeah yeah, that was it,” he spontaneously exclaims at the end of the recording.

He has continued to wax in many subsequent settings — with the FAB trio of Fonda, drummer Barry Altschul and the late violinist Billy Bang; and his albums with the Nu Band of trumpet master Roy Campbell, drummer Lou Grassi and saxophonist Mark Whitecage — hear their satirical Bush Wacked on their 2005 album Live in Vienna.

Fonda is one of the great bassists of our times and of our lives‚ never stopping, always telling.

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