"What Must Be Said" at The Cell

The Fonda/Stevens Group at 92YTribeca

by Craig Brinker

2-FondaStevensPhoto Credit: Manfred Kiesant

The Fonda/Stevens Group played a searching, searing set of improvisatory music Saturday night at 92YTribeca, a collective exploration of the tunes, the relationships between the musicians, and the history of jazz performance—exactly what a good jazz set should be. The lineup was not the standard Fonda/Stevens personnel, as hurricane-related travel difficulties prevented pianist Michael Jefry Stevens and trumpeter Herb Robertson from performing. The group, however, still split the program of all-original music between Stevens' tunes and bassist Joe Fonda's, with pianist Francesca Tanksley filling in for Stevens and Herb Robertson replaced by trumpet player Thomas Heberer.

The compositions performed were long-form with equal parts composed material and free improvisation, beginning with an extended, contrapuntal improvisation that slowly morphed into “Summer's Morning”—a lush, lyrical Stevens ballad; it's simply one of those tunes that has that fortunate quality of sounding like a classic song you've heard before, but can't quite identify. Tanksley quickly asserted herself as a pianist with a multitude of stylistic possibilities at her fingertips, moving fluidly from biting, Monk-esque runs to thick, impressionistic chords, a lá McCoy Tyner.

None of the players were afraid of strange or harsh timbres, with Herberer, in particular, spending much of the evening exploring some of the more non-traditional sounds that his instrument can produce, sometimes avoiding the horn altogether and just buzzing his lips or playing into one of his many mutes. Not all of the sounds he produced were pleasant (he unintentionally elicited some giggles from the audience), but his playing was convincing in the context of this highly experimental group.

The third tune, "What Do You Think?," was a Fonda original built (not surprisingly) around a bass ostinato that slowly built into the high point of the set. The tension grew through a chaotic, dissonant introduction, and came crashing to fruition with a monster groove that wouldn't have felt out of place on a James Brown record. When drummer Harvey Sorgen lets loose, as he proved on that number, he's able to fill the space with a solid wall of sound. 

Fonda fearlessly led the band into unknown musical regions with wild-eyed nodding and Cheshire Cat grins. Sorgen, too, was smiling constantly as he recycled and developed the other musicians rhythmic motives. This ensemble was a living, breathing organism, whose constituent parts can come together to create disjunct, dissonant sonic chaos or stunning musical coalescence. The Fonda/Stevens group confidently walks the tightrope between the yawning abyss of free jazz and the constraints of the post-bop language, providing a compelling and logical direction forward for acoustic jazz.