Joe Fonda & Gilbert Isbin

"Un moment très précieux."
Sabine Moig


1) Yes Day
2) Relief Dance
3) Wish I Was
4) Yeah!
5) Magic
6) This Longing
7) Fonda
8) Two Times
9) New Charges
1) I Was
1) Check Please
12) The House Of J.
13) For Gilbert

All compositions by Joe Fonda and Gilbert Isbin

Joe Fonda, double bass
Gilbert Isbin, acoustic guitar

recorded on March 16, 2001 by Jean-Marc Foussat

Photography: Jacky Lepage


"Gilbert Isbin pushes the boundaries of what is possible on the acoustic guitar. "Blisters" is a daring atonal and rhythmic encounter on the boundaries of music. Hypnotic, exhilarating, surprising, "Blisters" is right up there in the vanguard of the avant-garde. If you like your musical stylings out there on the edge, check out this new offering from Gilbert Isbin and the great American bassist, Joe Fonda."
Steve Elliott in acousticguitarworkshop.com, February 2003

"Le note di copertina del disco, seppur con una veste grafica elegante e con delle belle fotografie in bianco e nero, non danno molte indicazioni per cui sappiamo solo che Joe Fonda e Gilbert Isbin vengono dal Belgio. Ma ciò che conta è la loro musica ed il loro modo di vedere e sentire attraverso i loro strumenti: il contrabbasso e la chitarra acustica. Con solo questi due strumenti e senza l'ausilio della voce non ci sono molte strade musicali, se poi i nostri scelgono il radicalismo più estremo e l'improvvisazione più totale ci rendiamo conto che il CD non è dei più facili e merita un ascolto ponderato e senza pregiudizi. Fonda e Isbin si riallacciano a quel filone europeo di musica senza confini che fa della musica d'avanguardia, più che il jazz d'improvvisazione, il suo manifesto estetico: è indubbiamente una musica spigolosa, senza confini melodici od armonici in cui la struttura del brano nasce sul divenire e nella più ampia libertà esecutiva. Una testimonianza interessante e particolare per un genere ed una espressione musicale che fa parte della nostra cultura del nuovo millennio."
Roberto Menabò on www.bluestime.it

“Knowing the track record of bassist Joe Fonda (United States) and guitarist Gilbert Isbin (Belgium), it should come as no surprise that these modernists would turn in a creative duo session. Isbin's acoustic guitar discography features reconstructions of rocker Nick Drake's compositions amid avant/folk-based recordings and much more; Fonda co-leads the Fonda-Stevens jazz group, amid his affiliations with world music artists and his first-call session status for an assortment of modern jazz-based endeavors. On this outing, they stretch the sounds and capabilities of their acoustic instruments to the hilt. An extremely rhythmic endeavor, the musicians tap their axes, de-tune strings, and collaborate for a sequence of twisted themes. The listener will be treated to an assortment of countermelodies and free-form excursions on pieces such as "This Longing," "Check Please," and the remaining 11 works. Here, rules are meant to be broken, as the artists' carefree and sometimes humorous approach might be akin to the inventiveness of toddlers attempting to re-engineer their toys.”
Glenn Astarita in allmusicguide.com (July 2003) * * * *

“… Fonda is one of the most exuberant musicians – and people – on the scene. He’s got a near boundless energy and curiosity as a player, so it’s no surprise that eventually he’d record some duets with a guitarist. Isbin was unfamiliar to me prior to hearing this disc. He plays acoustic exclusively, and tends to work in a slashing chordal style that is usually very percussive (he often uses the body of the guitar in this fashion too). His approach brings out some of Fonda’s most forceful playing. The disc begins with woody tapping on the instruments’ bodies, and scritchy-scratchy strings. For the most part, ‘Yes Day’ is a very quiet piece, with the rubbing of strings producing sounds akin to saxophone extended techniques. Things get a bit more robust over subsequent tracks, with Isbin’s chiming chords (nerve)jangling and a bit similar to Bruce Eisenbeil’s recent stuff) over Fonda’s muscular playing, or squeaking arco ghost tones hovering amid gentle lyric wanderings. The two play very well together, whether on the gritty pieces or on a near ballad like ‘The Longing’, where there is great integration between Fonda’s songlike arco and Isbin’s framing chords. There’s even more of this mood on ‘Fonda’ – by far the disc’s longest track – on which the bassist really stretches with the bow while Isbin keeps time by thumping on the guitar body. There are moments of really good intensity but the track does also ramble (and there is some frankly bizarre whistling – Isbin also warbles a bit painfully on ‘Yeah!’). The disc is fine overall, though it’s slightly compromised by Isbin’s apparent reluctance to vary his approach a whole lot (hey man, how about some picking once in a while?). Worth checking out”.
Jason Bivins in Cadence (USA), August 2003

“Blisters?! Not ‘arf! “Yes Day” suggests that Fonda and Isbin are four-armed mutants, but maybe they’re just exceptionally dexterous with their feet. Oh, and sometimes they sing … sort of, Isbin, whose work colleagues have included Cameron Brown, Ernst Reijseger, Fred Van Jove and André Goudbeek, is someone you should add to your list of distinguished Belgians. Fonda is probably better known, thanks to a string of engagements with the bands of, amongst others, Archie Shepp, Ken McIntyre, Lou Donaldson, Leo Smith (Fonda was a member of Smith’s impressive Creative Musicians Improvisers Forum and Orchestra), Perry Robinson, Dave Douglas, Marion Brown, Bill Dixon and, for 15 years, Anthony Braxton. Between 1982-1986 he was both the bassist and a dancer with the Sonomama Dance Company. As I never saw the SDC I can’t say whether he pursued both activities simultaneously (or even at the same time) but this does kind of bring me back to my opening remarks.
Most tracks are fairly pithy, clocking in at comfortably under five minutes, except for “Fonda”, nearly 13 minytes long and constantly intensive. As you know, only deranged people whistle in public, and the siffling introduced towards the end of “Fonda” suggests a failure of lucid inspiration, until you recognise a droll post-Modern pastiche of “Big Noise From Winnetka”. Elsewhere it recalls the great Richard Davis’ memorable duets with Elvin Jones (“Summertime” from Heavy Sounds) and Eric Dolphy (“Alone Together” from the Douglas sessions) and perhaps it was this last association that made me think that the opening of “Two Times” sounded similar to “Music Matador” from those same Dolphy sessions.
In their broader musical activities Fonda and Isbin bestride the improvised/jazz and composed/classical worlds. O, this album they cross and re-cross that ill-defined, laxly-guarded frontier between free jazz and improv. The range of references – Isbin evokes pickers as varied as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Charlie Byrd and Derek Bailey – and techniques generates a richness which belies the limited instrumental resources. Like one of those puzzles where two grids of apparently random patterns slot together to reveal a familiar image. Fonda and Isbin’s meld initially abstract scrabblings into something strongly rhythmic and melodic and richly allusive.”
Barry Witherden in Jazz Review (UK), August 2003

“Le prolifique label Jazz’halo nous présente la rencontre de deux musiciens obsédés par les recherches et les explorations acoustiques les plus inventives et suggestives: Joe Fonda et Gilbert Isbin. Le contrebassiste et le guitariste s’adonnent à des tentatives sonores qui questionnent des facettes aux consonances plurielles et aux mélanges goûteux. Loin des standards éprouvés et éprouvants, la musique se livre à une aventure humaine qui semble nous plonger dans des territoires inconnus, lointains et captivants. L’auditeur se sent comme happé par ces sonorités à partir desquelles les musiciens parviennent à inventer des ailleurs pleins de promesses. Un moment très précieux.”
Sabine Moig dans Jazzosphère, 2004 (FR)

“Atypique … le guitariste brugeois Gilbert Isbin traite ses cordes comme nulle part ailleurs. Sa guitare est souvent préparée, arrangée, comme pour mieux s’adapter à l’univers singulier de ses compositions et de ses improvisations. Le contrebassiste américain Joe Fonda (Anthony Braxton, Michael Jefry Stevens, …) avance sans peine à même hauteur avec l’énergie qui sied, et dépasse même, ici et là, le ’compagnon’ en dérèglement.”
Philippe Schoonbrood dans Jazzaround, 2004 (B)

“Il faut citer tout de suite le troisième membre du groupe, ingénieur du son Jean-Marc Foussat. L’évidence de sons frappe immédiatement : les machines ne font pas ça toutes seules, il faut une oreille. Celle de Foussat accueille tous les sons et les organise en musique. Fonda et Isbin ne sont pas pour rien dans cette réussite. Mais la qualité de la captation leur permet de jouer aux marges de la musique, sachant qu’ils seront entendus. Leur musique se présente comme l’inspiration de celui qui se prépare à plonger, à sauter ou à courir, comme le regard avant l’épreuve. Cela lui donne ampleur et gravité sans lourdeur. Le titre Blisters signifie « ampoules », ces petites douleurs entre la chair et la peau qui naissent du frottement avec les choses. Si on s’interroge sur la pertinence, il oblige à écouter autrement : la violence que mettent les deux musiciens à manier leurs instruments ne ressort pas à l’écoute, comme si la prise de son de Foussat à la fois prenait le tout de ces sons et agissait sur eux comme un filtre révélant l’essentiel. La violence de cette musique ressemble à celle d’un sculpteur qui frappe la pierre ou d’un peintre qui balaie sa toile, elle n’est que dans le geste, liée à la résistance de la matière. La voix à peine articulée de Fonda se mêle souvent à son jeu et à ce qu’Isbin tire de sa guitare classique à cordes de nylon. Rien à voir ici avec la caricature d’instrument délicat qu’on en a souvent, c’est la guitare qu’on en a souvent, c’est la guitare du flamenco ou des traditions tziganes qui transparaît, non au travers du style mais dans la vigueur de l’abord. Le trio fait ici œuvre de composition, c’est un grand disque. On peut ajouter que le digipack à trois volets est une belle réussite : ces photos en noir & blanc, sobres mais parlantes, accompagnent parfaitement la musique.”
Philippe Renaud dans Impro Jazz, février 2004 (FR)

“Blisters by the acoustic duet Joe Fonda and Gilbert Isbin [Jazz'halo] documents the successful encounter between two musicians who spend time together and have a high opinion of each other. Fonda is an American double bass player, well-known in avant-garde circles, fearless and with a lively imagination, not worried at all about exceeding the imaginary limits set by his instrument. After a short coupling with the trumpeter Leo Smith, he became Anthony Braxton’s favourite double bass player, working together often during the 90’s. At the same time he also cultivated his own group (sometimes a quartet, sometimes a quintet), with the pianist Michael Jeffry Stevens as co-leader. The Belgian guitarist Isbin is decidedly less known, although he has already left precise and numerous recordings (let us mention one of his projects in which he reconstructs in the avant-garde the compositions of Nick Drake).

Fonda and Isbin address a dozen of their compositions that match one another and are characterised by a marked and irreverent rhythmic approach, often the only structural element which they use to weave together their creative bursts. The instruments are struck, caressed, sometimes even tortured in the search for original situations able to maintain the momentum of an expressive dialogue which can convey many convincing moments. Here and there, some unsettling sounds emerge, such as the spontaneous, and honestly embarrassing, whistling by one of them. However, these are risks that improvised music is often prescribed to take. Let us say that a little more rigor would not have been wasted.”
Allaboutjazz.italy 09/2003 Maurizio Comandini

"Someone once asked Russian composer Prokofiev if there was a risk of running out of melodies. After all, we've been making them up for thousands of years and there are only 12 notes in the Western chromatic scale. He basically said that if you consider the number of different mathematical combinations and throw in note duration, there is no practical limitation, so not to worry.

Bassist Joe Fonda and guitarist Gilbert Isbin have outstanding credentials in styles from pop to classical. Here they push the farthest edges of music providing support for Prokofiev's view with melodies and tonal effects never heard before. But they raise a new issue — is there a risk we'll run out of melodies anyone would want to listen to?

This album will appeal to only a very limited audience and I'm not in it. I'll try to explain why. If it seems like heavy going, you're probably best off just skipping most of the rest of the review and all of the album.

The music is nominally free jazz. One of the delights of modern jazz, free or otherwise, is the way influences are mixing to produce new sounds. The most obvious influences on Fonda and Isbin include traditional and free jazz, blues, flamenco and modern classical chamber music. I applaud the eclectic approach, but not the unattractive result. The musicians too often sound like they are playing at random, even though they aren't. There are lots of rhythmic and arrhythmic plinks and plunks. Lots of finger and hand-thumping of sound boxes. There are occasional recognizable melodies, though both bass and guitar are used primarily as rhythm rather than melodic instruments. There is vocalizing in the style of Charles Mingus when he was urging the troops on or just really feeling it. There's even at times the suggestion of a bizarre remake of Bob Crosby's "Big Noise From Winnetka."

So far, so good. The whole point of free jazz is to break loose from traditional harmonic and rhythmic straightjackets so that your talent and feelings can take you to wilder places. There are potential problems in communicating with an audience, however. Emotional free-jazz musicians can get carried away and abuse listeners with overly lengthy solos concentrated on single emotions such as anger or aggression. Fonda and Isbin are too sophisticated for that. Sometimes the sounds are ugly, but more often the problem is clever abstraction. They seem like academics playing for each other rather than a general audience. There aren't even any album notes to help with what's going on. If you're not smart enough to know, they apparently don't care.

Critics have often proven wrong in their judgements of new music, so it's tempting to avoid the possibility of looking like a fool by making innocuous statements about this sort of thing, such as "breaks new ground" or "hypnotic." I'll take the chance. The appropriate word is "painful." The musicians probably had fun making the album, but few listeners are likely to join in. Not recommended.
Reprinted with permission. Copyright © August 2nd, 2003 Rambles and Ron Bierman.

"There are many reasons why oysters are usually served on the half-shell. For one, presentation is a factor — they just look better garnished and arranged around a plate that way. Another consideration for the chef preparing them is how much work can and should he do for his patrons? Most restaurant goers don't want to go the trouble of cracking a whole oyster just to get at the little bit of meat inside, but they'll happily enjoy them if the process is made a little more inviting.

Joe Fonda & Gilbert Isbin's Blisters is like a plate of raw, unprocessed oysters. There's some good meat to be found in the CD's thirteen tracks, but you have to go through a lot of dense material to get at it. The music here is almost completely deconstructed. Fonda's bass still retains elements of melody and rhythm, but Isbin's guitar is largely reduced to a percussion instrument for the first half of the album. Toward the conclusion of the disc, Isbin starts to play his instrument in a more recognizable manner — his playing on "Two Times" contains some nice traces of Flamenco, for example — but by that time you may have lost interest."
Reprinted with permission. Copyright © 2004 JazzReview and Edward Kane.

"Joe Fonda and Gilbert Isbin, partners in time, create vivid imagery via the many manifestations of sound they take their instruments through, over, and across. What is more remarkable is that they do it with an astute aesthetic: there is no howl or cry in their music. What they have is rhythm, a pulse and a kinetic energy that constantly bristles.

The compositions are credited to Fonda and Isbin, but the heartbeat lies in the improvisation that gives the music its depth and character. It has a spontaneity that rises and endears. One never knows where the two are headed. In this lies both the delight and the lure. And it does not matter whether they are on an exuberant roll or are locked in quiet communication.

One of the characteristics of this album is that Fonda plays the melodies while Isbin, for the most part, thunks the body of the guitar, rustles the strings and slaps and slides, but adds enough dynamics to make the tunes vibrant. The first song, describing a cycle of varied time, opens on the funky beat of the bass before Isbin comes in to do his dance on the guitar and help shape the ebb and tide of structure. Fonda's arco, always a strong element that shows droves of imagination, gets a particularly virile workout on "The House of J," the roiling intensity fuelling chunky chord work from Isbin. The bowing that ushers in "Fonda" is mellow, a molten warmth essaying its presence and shimmering in a chamber music-like feel. The artists constantly tweak the sonic palette, the shades of sound and metre making for an elevating experience. Free music and unabashed rhythm drive the blues away."
Reprinted with permission. Copyright © 2006 All About Jazz and Jerry D'Souza.

"As soon as you hear Gilbert's guitar(s), you'll know where th' CD title came from... lightning-fast, high-energy picking, & Fonda's double-bass drives the pace to th' kind of frenzy that only raw talent can accommodate. The duo keep up a running background scat on quite a few of the pieces, though you have to listen pretty closely to hear their chanting. Fans of players like Ernesto Diaz-Infante will relate to this style immediately! Rather than epic compositions, most of the pieces are quite short (under 5 minutes, except for one), so it (actually) makes for a wonderful listen. Gilbert is from Belgium, Joe from the U.S., but they're definitely soul-mates with a clear understanding of the directions their music is traveling towards... subtle oblivion & energetic excellence. If you're looking for full-blown orchestral, or "pop" jazz, you'll hit "eject" right away... but if you love strings that vibrate & move the strings of your heart, you will have to have "Blisters". The keyword here is subtle... but, nothing is obscured, the recording has captured ev'ry moment, with no need to screech/whistle/pop to cover anything over. I enjoyed this greatly, & listened to it (at least) 5 times through before I felt I had "absorbed" (a part of) their vision. This gets a HIGHLY RECOMMENDED for fans of string-based improvisation."
Reprinted with permission. Copyright © 2006 Zzaj Productions and Dick Metcalf - Dick Metcalf a.k.a. Rotcod Zzaj for Improvijazzation Nation Issue # 64

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