Live at the Bunker
Leo / CDLR301
Joe Fonda / bass, Michael Jefry Stevens / piano, Paul Smoker / trumpet, Harvey Sorgen / drums
Joe Fonda & Xu Fengxia
Leo Lab / CD069
Joe Fonda / bass, voice, Xu Fengxia / guzheng, voice
Joe Fonda is a powerful, technically facilitous bassist whose presence on the American jazz scene continues to grow. He’s ne of those people who speaks of jazz as “the music”; an old-fashioned jazzman, in other words, albeit an unusually catholic one.
Like his sometime employer Anthony Braxton, he’s excited about the whole of jazz, and although the music his qaurtet plays on Live At The Bunker can be angular and freewheeling, it’s rarely “free jazz” per se. Opening with a sweet, beautifully-handled post-bop ballad worthy of Clifford Brown, the group sets out its stall as a proper jazz band, with proper chord changes and cool, smouldering solos.
This opener is one of three compositions contributed by the pianist — the other three are Fonda’s. Stevens’s Don’t Go Baby is a funky modal piece strongly reminiscent of Miles, but Haiku has a mysterious, undulating quality which feels rather unique, with Smoker sounding like a rather sultry Freddie Hubbard, then transforming himself for a beautifully tremulous duet with Fonda arco. All three pieces are strong, but they’re as different as can be, which seems to be a part of what this group is about.
The bass player’s own compositions are more spikey affairs, wih sharp corners all over the place, liberally peppered with free sections but always structured. The opening of “Circle” shows him to be an accomplished soloist, too, with that rare ability to create drama and old the attention on an instrument which seems sometimes insufficiently declamatory for such a purpose.
The band throughout prove themselves to be unspeakably swinging. Smoker on the aforementioned “Circle” almost catches fire, but elsewhere he smooches up to the mike and plays fine ballad solos. Stevens really does seem to have whole swathes of the jazz tradition under his fingers (apparently he cites Evans and Taylor as influences, as if rather self-consciously making a poitn, but it’s a valid point anyway). Sorgen is a swinger, but his free playing is capable and supportive, finding sensible and proactive things to do in an environment in which most straightish jazz drummers often flounder.
Fonda, throughout, is a monster, as he is on Distance; and a more different record you culd hardly hope to ask for. Quite what kind of music this duo plays is something of a mystery, but it’s infectious, exciting and barrels of fun.
The guzheng sounds like some kind of silk-stringed koto, perhaps tuned down a little because the strings sound loose and floppy, and are open to being bent up some considerable distance by means of pressure on the opposite side of the bridge. Xu plays it with rhythmic fervous, making it shudder and shimmer with a kind of elasticated bounce. Fonda leaps into the fray, pushing the pulse home where there is one, revelling in the freedom when there isn’t.
Xu has a melodic side, too, as evidenced in the opeing of A Journey Into The Desert, in which her notes seem to curl up off the soundboard, twist in the air for a moment and then expire. The results can be breathtakingly gorgeous, but there’s always a sense of mischievous fun in this music which never quite lets it get too serious. Highly recommended. Richard Cochrane