JOE FONDA

When It’s Time
Jazz ‘Halo TS011

ANTHONY COX That & This
Sketch SKE 333029

KENT KESSLER Bull Fiddle Okka Disk 12038

MIKE BULLOCK Initial
Chloë 001

Four bassists, 40 fingers, no waiting. That’s a slogan you’ll definitely never see, at least not outside of a badly run jam session. Seriously, though, each of these four solo CDs shows how singular an individual’s approach to the same instrument can be.

The double bass shed its reputation as a lumbering workhorse midway through the last century, with advances in jazz, contemporary classical music and free improvisation. Now in a climate of bass liberation, recitals like these demonstrate what committed stylists like the four on show can bring to the same four strings.

Going from very far left to right, Marshfield, Mass.’s Mike Bullock is the most radical, New York’s Joe Fonda is the most traditional, in a emancipated jazz sort of way, with Chicago’s Kent Kessler and Minneapolis’ Anthony Cox occupying the middle ground.

Fonda, whose reputation has ballooned in the past few years due to his longtime association with pianist Michael Jefry Stevens as well as work with reedists Anthony Braxton and Gebhard Ullman, has created the sort of solo CD you would expect from someone of his experience.

Unshowy, steady and straightforward, he avoid the bow most of the time and sticks very much in the middle range. Most of the titles of the tracks here contain illusions to well-known standards, as do some of his improvisations. Furthermore — and this may sound silly — you always know that he’s playing the bass.

Some contemporary bassists behave as if they’re playing a mini-violin or a stringed percussion instrument. Not Fonda. He’s part of the long line of superior jazz bassists that includes Paul Chambers and Wilbur Ware and goes back to include pre-modernists like Major Holley and Slam Stewart. Listen carefully, in fact, and you’ll probably hear some echoes of Pops Foster pioneering slap style on “Soon to Know”, the more-than-10 minute final track.

Not adverse to groaning, grunting and singing along with his finger work, there are times that his octave harmonization with his bass recalls Stewart and Holley’s humming-in-octave-unison style. What that means of course is that is tempo is never less than swinging, and this doubling allows his axe to reflect everything he hums, while his groans mirror his fleet string work. It may sound as if he’s straining, but the effort obviously allows him to pull new ideas from within and transfer them to his fingers.

WHEN IT’S TIME, an apt title, shows that Fonda has the facility to do what he wants. He can explode into frenzy of buzzing bowing if he wishes, race from the highest pitch to the lowest, or even reverberate tones by beating the front of his strings. Most comfortably and most impressively he’s most at ease sounding out mid range percussive notes.

However on “No One There At All”, written by dancer Brenda Buffalino, another of his collaborators, he sounds out variations on the tune before the theme reveals itself. Interestingly enough, the patterns that then appear seem to mirror one of those near-tuneless dirge saxophonist Arthur Doyle plays. What’s equally bizarre is that the theme resembles that of “Cadence”, a short improvisation on THIS & THAT, recorded more than three years later and a continent away by Cox. Maybe it’s a particular bass line that lies easily under the fingers.

As that sort of serendipity makes clear, Cox, whose highest profile came in 1996 when he recorded with tenor man Joe Lovano on QUARTETS LIVE AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARD, is, like Fonda, definitely a jazzman. Considering his playing partners have included saxists Marty Ehrlich and Stan Getz, pianist Geri Allen and drummer Ed Blackwell, he can play free as well as with chord changes.

Although he sounds more at ease in arco mode than Fonda, the assistance of a written composition seems to give him added comfort. At least, “Mr. Cox High School Band Director”, the longest of the 16 pieces on his disc, and one of the three that’s not completely improvised, bounces along at foot-tapping tempo. With its solid, cool jazz rhythm, it’s the kind of song you could easily imagine being played by an bass elder statesman like the late Milt Hinton.

Many of the other tunes, which usually clock in at the three-minute mark, appear overall to be concerned with certain techniques. The sonorous sounds of “The Protector”, for instance, centre around the low end of the instrument with the theme elaborated on higher strings and a repeated single tone pedal point on the bottom. “New Point of View”, on the other hand, is a combination of walking and some Foster-like slap bass.

His arco talents get a workout on “Treaty”, where the dark and oscillating riff has an (original) Adams Family theme song vibe and is expressed at the beginning in cello range but is back to bass timbres by the end. “Joy” shows off a swelling arco tone with plenty of double stops to savor.

Other influences come into the mix as well. “Marketplace” has overtones of folksy 18th century British ballads like Richard Dyer-Bennett used to sing. Its rhythm seems related more to a jig than then the African-American tradition. “Bats” is a speed showcase, but Cox makes the notes ring as if he was finger picking an Appalachian banjo, not a bull fiddle.

These folksy influences resonate in the work of Kessler, the other Midwesterner represented in this group. On “Pikeville Girl”, the slow-moving, disconsolate sound seems to contain a mountain melody that’s trying to escape, as the bass tones move in and out of aural close ups. Then there’s the short “Word Edgewise”, where the scratchy bass fills compete with vocalized sections that appear to be close relatives to the way bluegrass whiz Earl Scruggs makes his banjo “talk”.

Stalwart of the Chicago scene, Kessler has had a longtime association with saxophonists Hall Russell’s NRG Ensemble, and Ken Vandermark’s various bands, as well as drummers Hamid Drake and Michael Zerang, the last of whom guests on three tracks here. Kessler also knows about country and folk music through his vocalist wife. That’s what “Out of Iowa” seems to reflect — a sparse and atmospheric track that gradually fades away after guitar-like picking on the bassist’s part.

“Central Wisconsin double wide”, the longest track at more than 10½-minutes, is also the most cinematic. Beginning with arco tones that sound like a locomotive going down the tracks, he then begins to double and triple stop, with the theme unrolling at faster and faster tempo as he plays. Exhibiting a relaxed briskness, he bows more than one string at a time, produces some screechy overtones then reverberations, as he explores the sound. Reaching the destination the sonics fade away.

Elsewhere Kessler ranges all over the strings, often interrupting his firm, virile tone for extended techniques involving buzzing strings, wood scratching, rumbles, bangs and shakes. Zerang’s interjections on dumbek, an Arabic, hourglass-shaped drum, merely amplify the mix, although there is one point that his percussion pattern sounds as if it was created with a bolo bat.

Wild card of the bunch, Bullock’s INITIAL is all about extended technique, noises and protracted silences. The bassist, who studied composition and electronic music at Princeton, is part of the group of Boston-based improvisers, including cellist Vic Rawlings and trumpeter Greg Kelley, who travel the minimalist road that passes through New music and free improv.

Turn up your stereo to hear the first, more than 23½-minute piece, recorded in a Montreal club. For the first three minutes or so you won’t detect anything but bar talk conversation, the clink of glasses, people shuffling around and chairs being moved. Then the buzzing bass amp gradually cuts into the ambient sound. Eventually joining this swelling drone are periodic mechanical scratches, something that sounds as if the bass bow is being dragged across the strings, then bounced off them, and sticks placed at intervals between the reverberating strings. Following some ear-wrenching feedback, the drone gets so pronounced that you begin to hear — sense?— pulsating overtones. Finale comes with some quick, plucked, single tones that subsume into a fuzzy drone and abruptly terminate.

More of a bass showcase, track two begins with intermittent scratching and string pulling then explodes into a superfast, triple-stopping exploration. Elongated high-pitched tones are heard, as are others that sound as if they’re being scraped from the strings with steelwool. Again it appears that the bow is attacking the front of the strings with reverberations falling where they may. As repeated patterns arise, it then appears as if chipmunks are invading the wood, scratching the top of the bass neck and behind the bridge, even untuning each peg slowly. The one solo that relates to the sort of all-out EuroImprov pioneered by Barry Guy and Peter Kowald, ends the piece in superspeed mode, with Bullock flailing away at the strings as if he’s playing Appalachian banjo. Maybe there are some roots Americana influences here after all. Still, this bassist will never be confused with a folkie.

Looking for a way to satisfy your bass desires? You couldn’t do much better than investigating any or all of these four fine discs.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: When: 1. Second Time Around 2. My Time With J. & E. 3. The Other Side Of Things 4. When It’s Time 5. I Stepped Into A Dream 6. Been There Before 7. No One There At All 8. Soon To Know

Personnel: When: Joe Fonda (bass)

Track Listing: That: 1. Movement 2. Joy 3. Boulder Car 4. Midwest Playboy 6. Ballad One 7. The Protector 8. Marketplace 9. Rios 10. Treaty 11. Cadence 12. New Point of View 13. Run 14. Ronin 15. Mr. Cox High School Band Director 16. Opening

Personnel: That: Anthony Cox (bass)

Track Listing: Bull: 1. Monon line 2. Spillway 3. Batum schrag* 4. Word edgewise 5. Sugar Creek 6. Furthermore 7. Waddy Peytona* 8. That is 9. Central Wisconsin double wide 10. Out of Iowa 11. Gilman Chatsworth* 12. Pikeville girl

Personnel: Bull: Kent Kessler (bass); Michael Zerang (dumbek*)

Track Listing: Initial: 1. Boxes piled on boxes, all of them empty 2. There was a stiff breeze

Personnel: Initial: Mike Bullock (bass)