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Judith Insell Reviews: 
Jazz on Strings: Judith Insell and Joe Fonda Proclaim Spirited Improvisation


Jazz on Strings is not a new phenomenon. Violinists Stephane Grappeli, Svend Asmussen and more recently Regina Carter and Mark Feldman have demonstrated the suitability of the bowed strings in jazz vocabulary. But still a string instrument in the context of jazz is a bit of a black sheep among the thousands of saxophones, guitars and pianos. The good thing is that although few in number, strings as "instruments that can swing" raise fewer eyebrows today than ever before.

Dark Wood Explorations by violist Judith Insell (who plays the lower and bigger viola, not a "standard" violin) and contrabassist Joe Fonda is an ample documentation of original attitude when bridging standard repertoire with original compositions, adapted for a duo environment. The album features daring versions of John Coltrane's "India" and particularly pianist Bill Evans' "Very Early", usually a harmonically inclined experience, which is here approached in a more contrapuntal fashion with no harmonies in display. Richie Beirach's "Elm" is approached a bit more conventionally with some underlying chords, possibly due to its absence on the general gig and jam session scene. The haunting melody is approached with stark melancholism and longing, making this ten-minute track a highlight. The more adventurous selections include the Fonda originals "In the White Cage" and "Song for My Mother" as well as the Insell compositions "Bill" and the happy-spirited "Voo la la Blues", which hardly feels or sounds like a blues in its original meaning. Dark Wood Explorations is a joyful and an "exploring" experience. The album demonstrates the strength of jazz as a genre, where all instrumentations are possible and "authentic", to benefit the core elements of this unique American tradition. Recommended.


Ottmar Klammer (Stockwerk Jazz-Austria)-translated
Judith Insell - Joe Fonda Duo (U.S.)
Jakominiplatz 18
8010 Graz

J. Insell (viola)
J. Fonda (double bass)

Intimate and interwoven fine chamber jazz. The dominating dark string instruments of the New York duo of Judith Insell and Joe Fonda focuses more on the hidden subtleties of jazz and improvisation. These are the harmonic possibilities and the variety of timbres of their instruments free but meticulously explored. To hear compositions by John Coltrane, Richie Beirach and Bill Evans as well as highly idiosyncratic original. It's intimate and often fragile, almost fine. With this new CD 'Darkwood Exploration' is the duo for the first time to Europe.

The violist Judith Insell comes from Harlem in New York and is just like the old warhorse scene Joe Fonda in that contemporary jazz world at home, the man once described as avant-garde. Insell played, among others, the Soldier String Quartet, ie, with people like John Cale and Elliott Sharp, and worked with Lee Konitz, Steve Coleman and Greg Osby. Incidentally, she accompanies pop musicians such as Beyonce Knowles or Jessica Simpson around the globe.

The most enterprising bassist Joe Fonda, already best known here by the Fonda-Stevens Group, is one of the vielbeschäftigsten representative of his discipline. So he played with no less like Anthony Braxton, Billy Bang, Herb Robertson and Barry Altschul.
- O.Klammer
Reviews for "Dark Wood Explorations":

Bass String Duos: Dark Wood Explorations
and Jonathan Chen Orchestra          
By Elliott Simon, AAJ-NY (Sept. 2008)
Two very different bassists, Joe Fonda and Tatsu
Aoki, each pairs with a different member of the string
family to create sonic experiences that stress sonority
and explore harmonics. Fonda meets violist Judith
Insell on equal terms for the uniquely beautiful Dark
Wood Explorations while Aoki is the lone supporting
player in violinist Jonathan Chen’s Orchestra.
Of all the orchestral string instruments the viola
has had the least affinity for jazz. Barely bigger than a
violin, it is tuned five notes lower and as a result
sacrifices the violin’s brightness. In Insell’s capable
hands throughout Dark Wood Explorations, however,
this is more than made up for by a luxuriously warm
tone custom-made to blend with Fonda’s deeply
resonant bass. Insell contributes four tunes and Fonda
two as the pair take turns providing the rhythm for the
other’s free-formish melodic statements and Trane’s
“India” and Bill Evans’ “Very Early” are painted with
deep textural strokes. At times, Insell can swing in an
almost Stuff Smith way as she demonstrates on the
surprisingly upbeat closer “Voo La La Blues”. But for
the most part this release meets its stated aim as
moody harmonics abound and are most intriguing
when the two play in tandem. - ES

Downtown Music Gallery Newsletter- August 8, 2008
By Bruce Gallanter

JUDITH INSELL/JOE FONDA DUO – Dark Wood Explorations (Insell; USA) Featuring Judith Insell on viola and Joe Fonda on contrabass.

I recall Ms. Insell from her days with the Soldier String Quartet when the performed with John Cale. She has also worked with Lee Konitz, Steve Coleman and Greg Osby. Contrabassist extraordinaire, Joe Fonda, remains one of the greatest of all local bassists and has worked with a plethora of downtown's best musicians: Anthony Braxton, Fonda/Steven Group, Conference Call and th Nu Band.

The duo opens with Coltrane's "India," a fave of many Trane fans, myself included. This piece is quite powerful as Joe bass provides some thunder while Judith wails on top. What I love about this is that the duo is able to provide those heavy spirits with just two string players. Bill Evan's poignant "Very Early" is done with taste and care: I dig the way Judith caresses each note, bending them like a tear rolling down someone's face. Joe takes one of his mighty fine bass solos here, an inspired one, righteous and filled with passion.  Judith's piece, "Bill," is a haunting, melancholy song in which Judith plays the stunning melody while Joe just punctuates with a handful of well-placed notes that resonate just right.  "In the White" features a touching double bowed melody as the theme. While Judith plays each note with intense concentration, Joe burns profusely underneath. Then the roles are switched while Joe bows with immense focus while Judith plucks quickly on top. Back and forth, back and forth, like a heated discussion that erupts and takes you along with it, never knowing where it will end but you know you are being uplifted nonetheless. Richie Beirach's "Elm" sounds like two ghosts hovering around one another, both with slightly bent drones. Judith plays that touching melody, making every note count, while Joe also extends the same spirit, again with just a few well-placed notes, plucked and then bowed. On "Baghdad Waltz," Joe explodes with one of those astonishing bass solos that must be heard to be believed.
I haven't heard a string duo disc in a long while that is as good as this one. The last one that I can recall was Fred Hopkins and Deirdre Murray from more than a decade ago. Good company for this great contemporary duo. This fabulous duo will be playing here at DMG in a couple of months, so please stay tuned. - BLG