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House of Waters: The Fresh Fountain of Fusion


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A record is a representation of a time period. It's not necessarily a finished product. They continue to evolve. They should change. If the music is really about you, and you change, then the music has to change, as well.
—Max ZT
Fascinating is the first word that comes to mind, followed by insightful, sophisticated, adventurous, engrossing, and perhaps even astounding. Am I making reference to House of Waters's most recent record, Rising (GroundUP, 2019) or am referring to a conversation with the three accomplished and notably bright musicians who comprise House of Waters? The answer is yes. Moto Fukushima is a melodic and rhythmic bassist beyond borders. Drummer Ignacio Rivas Bixio traverses on imaginative percussive journeys. Then there is Max ZT. What trio would be complete without a two-fisted hammered dulcimerist that plays engaging melodies and intricate patterns underneath simultaneously? Certainly not this one. Their fluidity of sound is a landmark of modern fusion. Its brilliance is matched only by their compelling stories, creative passion, and their well-studied musical and life experiences. Put more simply, I had an incredibly enjoyable and illuminating chat with three cats that really know where it's at.

All About Jazz: Well, let's start with the name House of Waters. Where does that come from? What's the story with that?

Max ZT: Moto and I started this band long back and we realized that we are coming from different areas of influence. My instrument in the American concept is known mostly in folk music and Celtic music, which is my background. I studied in West Africa and India. Moto, being from Japan, has a whole different background. Then you add in Ignacio from Argentina and there is yet another entirely different background. So, our music became a melting pot of different worlds and different cultures. The idea then being different streams of influences coming together as one solid structure. That's the idea of House of Waters. A different fluidity. Music from India, music from South America, music from Africa, music from America, music from Japan, and more, all coming together in this one cohesive place. It's not rigid. We have the dynamics for fluidity and improvisation. It also plays into how we write and approach our compositions. It gives us a lot of freedom and who knows what will happen? (rhetorical question).

AAJ: There have been many piano-led trios and guitar-led trios, but a dulcimer-led trio, not so much. So, I wanted to get into how that came about.

MZ: Well, I have been playing the dulcimer since I was seven. So, for me it is not all that unusual. I played the drums a little in high school in punk bands, but generally speaking, the dulcimer has always been what I really do. After hearing Moto play, subbing at a gig one night, it was very clear that he had something special. We wanted to pursue that and keep playing together. I guess at that point it became a jazz trio. It wasn't so much intention that now we are going to put together a hammered dulcimer melodic-led jazz trio. It's just who we are musically. The origin story of the band is that it was a five-piece that included a guitarist and two percussionists. Later, it became a trio. The five-piece never really clicked. The defining moment for the band really was when Moto introduced me to Ignacio. It was very clear from the first time we played together just how much joy and fun we were having together. It was such a reenergizing moment for us individually and as a group.

AAJ: Sometimes less is more. You have more space for improvisation and creativity.

MZ: Bernard Stollman, the founder of the avant-garde record label ESP, heard us play and said that, "A table only needs three legs to stand." That was probably ten years ago. At the time we were a bit resistant on that theory. But now years later thinking about it, it's like damn, he was exactly right.

AAJ: Sometimes an insightful viewpoint or statement such as that can take some time to register. You have to find it out for yourself. Let's break it down individually. Starting with you Moto. Where are you originally from? How old were you when you first started playing the bass? And when and what led you to coming to the states?

Moto Fukushima: I am from Kobe, Japan. I started playing music at a very early age. My mother was a piano teacher. So, I started with the piano. I had some classical training, but I didn't like it. I switched to rock guitar when I was eleven or twelve. It was fine. I liked it but it never really did it for me. When I was in high school, there was no bassist. It looked easy with just four strings. I picked it up and it was fun. So much fun right away. I eventually switched to a six string and was playing rock and jazz fusion. I looked into the famous Berklee College of Music as I got more into jazz. I thought, this is where I need to go if I really want to study jazz. To go to the United States where jazz was born. I auditioned and was able to go to Berklee. That was like twenty-one years ago.

AAJ: Must have been a special moment in your life when you picked up that bass and just knew that was it. What about you, Ignacio?

Ignacio Rivas-Bixio: I am from Buenos Aires, Argentina. I always loved music from the time I was a little kid. I was always looking for cassettes to play and dreaming about being a musician. One day when I was fourteen, I told my parents that I wanted to take drum lessons. That was the instrument that always got my attention. For a year I went to drum lessons at a music store. They didn't have a drum set there, so I would practice rudiments on a stool. I just couldn't get enough. I just wanted more and more. After about a year, my parents bought me a drum set. After that, I didn't want to do anything else. I played in a blues band in high school. When I finished high school, I went to a very good music school in Buenos Aires. I learned about Berklee, but I didn't have the money to go there. So, I got a job playing drums on a cruise ship. I saved all the money I earned for two and a half years playing on cruise ships and then was able to follow my path and go to Berklee.

AAJ: That's very cool that you found a way to make the money, were willing to put in the time and be patient, and eventually get to Berklee.

IRB: Yes, it was actually a great experience. I got to play drums every day. I was able to travel the world. I met many people and made many connections. It was a great experience for me. I went home for one month afterwards and then went to audition at Berklee and was given a scholarship. Since I had already studied music in Argentina, I was able to complete my studies at Berklee in just two years. Then it was straight on to New York. Then I met these guys and I am living the dream.

AAJ: Yes, your childhood dream. It's terrific that you appreciate that. Also, a great illustration for youngsters with a dream. It takes more than just dreaming. You have to go out and make the effort to make it happen. So then back to you, Max. You are from the states, yes?

MZ: Yes, I'm from Chicago. I was raised in a very musical environment. My parents weren't musicians, but they were into really avant-garde jazz. They became family friends with many artists of that genre that were popular at that time. My parents were filmmakers and photographers. I grew up in that world of artistic mentality. Only now do I sometimes think that choosing the dulcimer might have been my rebellion in nature to all of that. There was also a very strong tradition of the Irish and folk world. I studied music in different parts of the world. Later I went to Bard College in upstate New York. Most of the schools I applied to wanted me to switch from the dulcimer to the vibes or marimba or something else. They were very stuck in their conservative mentality of what music is. Bard, fortunately, had the mindset to want to support me in something that I was passionate about. They were more interested in what they could do as an institution to support my passion. That was a rare thing to hear, at least at the time. I think it has changed a bit since then. They had a great music department there. They were very open-minded and gave me a platform to develop.

AAJ: Tell me about the studying music in different parts of the world.

MZ: I got a grant from the American Institute of Indian Studies. I was studying Indian classical music while living in Mumbai. I studied under Pandit Shivkumar Sharma, the preeminent voice of the santoor, which is the early form of the dulcimer. That was a massive influence on my music and how I solo. Also, personally with the philosophy of presentness, focusing on the moment and the choices you make. Interaction, both musically and personally. Perhaps with the audience. Completely separate from that, I studied with the Cissoko griot family in West Africa. When I was nineteen, I went out to Senegal for the first time and went there pretty consistently over the next five or six years. I was living with the Cissoko family and studying the Mandinko technique and the kora. The kora is a similar sounding instrument to the dulcimer. There is the orchestral approach where one hand is doing one thing and one is doing another. Mostly around the world the instrument is viewed as only melodic. However, here I learned about dividing into bass lines and harmonies within the orchestral approach. It changed everything for me. It allowed me to develop the kind of fullness that you hear in House of Waters. Along with the way Moto plays the bass, and the way Ignacio plays the drums, we have developed a much wider sound. A lot of that is because it is almost like two dulcimers are playing. My right hand is doing something completely different than my left. One doing the melody and the other doing a pattern underneath.

AAJ: It's interesting that you say that, because there are several times on Rising that I am just wondering how on earth you are even doing that.

MZ We didn't do any overdubs on the record.

AAJ: Oh, now, that's amazing.

MZ: It comes from that kora approach. It was a game-changer. It changed everything. I use as much of that as I can in every single composition, every single solo, really everything. Sometimes now I need to take a step back and get back to a single line some of the time. More the traditional use of the instrument. Sometimes that busyness needs to be dialed back or balanced. That's my focus right now in trying to find just the right balance.

AAJ: Using it when you need to, not just because you can.

MZ: Right, exactly. And it's hard, because it sounds good. But the older I get, I feel that I am getting better and better at utilization and balance.

AAJ: Aside from the musical aspects, what was your experience like living in India and Africa?

MZ: I definitely have a love/hate relationship with both places. But I often have that with New York as well. It's not uncommon to have that feeling. I was quite broke in West Africa. I got sick. I was hallucinating. I lost a bunch of weight. It was pretty intense. Only in your youth do you kind of romanticize struggle. Only with age do you realize that you don't need to and that it is actually quite dangerous. You read authors or listen to musical artists, and you can easily idolize that world. But it could actually kill you. The struggle is not what is creating the art. It's the work. Its focus and empathy. At the time, in Senegal, I didn't necessarily know that. I got sucked into that mentality of it doesn't matter, that you just push through because you are an artist. Although quite romantic, it's not real.

AAJ: Only romantic in theory.

MZ: Romantic in theory, yes. But it's just ego. It's something telling you that this is what it means to be an artist. It's not real in practice. I finally gained perspective on what is important and what is not.

AAJ: At the time you wanted the struggle. You embraced it as a rite of passage. I suppose in a way, that naivety made it a little easier to deal with.

MZ: Absolutely. I am looking forward to going back, however. It will be much different with maturity. I have very close friends there. I lived with these people for several years. It's been ten years since the last time I was there. Now, India was quite different than that. I had a nine-month grant. I was able to stretch that money to over two years. It was very good money and a full artist development deal. It allowed me to focus on art and the philosophical aspects of life. English is also very common there. So, it was very easy to communicate within the community. I actually met my wife there. So, we have been back there many times. That was a MUCH easier trip than Senegal. It still had its moments of difficulty of course. But an entirely different experience than Senegal.

AAJ: Fascinating. Thank you for sharing so much about your experiences in Africa and India. Fascinating. I already said that, but worth repeating. I have spoken to Leni Stern quite a bit about her experiences in Africa. One thing that strikes me is that she has gone back, and gone back, and gone back, and gone back, etc. I get the impression that, as you alluded to, that it has a lot to do with the people and the relationships formed.

MZ: Absolutely. Also, the relationship that people in the communities have with music. It's so engrained in their culture. You wake up at sunrise and they are playing music. You play and play. Stop to eat some French baguette with some bean spread and then play and play more. Minimal food for dinner and then go to bed, get up and do that some more. There is a certain amount of fuel and fulfillment in all of that.

AAJ: They don't have the excess and all the distractions of the western culture.

MZ: Yes, and it's a very beautiful concept. You can't do that here. You wake up to emails and phone calls and texts and this meeting with this person and that other meeting with some other person. There is just so much other work that has to be done here. In New York there is just this energy of you have to do it. That you just have to do it.

AAJ: So much stuff that gets in the way of the actual music.

MZ: It's hard to create in that kind of environment. But if you can survive it, it is the best thing in the world.

AAJ: Ignacio, what is the impact that it has on your playing? The question being, what are the differences in approach that you need to take as opposed to playing with a pianist or trumpeter?

IRB: The dulcimer itself is a very percussive instrument. So, it is like having another percussionist to match the timing with. Maybe I would compare it to a cowbell. (Although we all knew what he meant, the cowbell comment drew a laugh from Moto and Max. Max jokingly saying, "I don't even want to hear your reasoning on that.") No, I just mean It has a very metallic sound. It is very demanding in the sense that I have to really stay with him. In, say, a piano trio, it would be more open in the way I could play or express the notes. But Max is playing a very active subdivision. Again, I have to really match with him and be very cautious not to play too much. Always looking for ideas to play things that work within that concept. I find it to be a lot of fun. It is definitely different than any other type of setting.

AAJ: One of the many aspects of your music that I appreciate is that the changes between the three of you are so seamless. There isn't the regiment of here's a guitar solo, okay now it's time for the piano solo, and here comes the sax solo, etc. It's easy to forget who is playing lead and to just absorb the song. Is that an intent of your song structure?

MZ: The seamlessness is part of the chemistry and concept, so that it doesn't really matter who takes the lead. I talked a little about it before in terms of composition. There is no reason why the bits and pieces from various genres and structures and concepts can't flow seamlessly. The melody and the symmetry are all fluid. That's very much our approach. Getting stuck into regimented, or kind of boxy approaches, is the same thing as getting stuck in a genre.

MF: That is very much a part of it. Also, to be able to put our cultures together the way we do is very special. We are very lucky to do what we do. We are very different from a guitar trio or a piano trio. We are all playing lead, all comping, all playing rhythm. Each of us are taking the lead all the time. Each of us are comping all the time. It comes together in a very different way. More of an orchestral kind of idea. It's a triangle as much as it is a trio.

MZ: Yes, it's back to that three-legged table analogy. If you remove any one of those three legs, we are in bad shape. It's very equal. It's a level playing field.

AAJ: It reminds me of what Joe Zawinul of Weather Report once said, "We never solo, we always solo."

MZ, MF, & IRB: YES. Exactly. WOW. (Exuberance in their tone in appreciation and understanding of exactly what Zawinul meant by that.)

AAJ: Your latest record, Rising, is in my humble opinion, an epic piece of modern fusion. Your music has always had a lot of depth. Let's talk a little bit about the creative process. Your music is unique. So, what is the creative process like? How do you go about creating a song like "Kites?" I must say that I mention that particular song because it is so very moving.

MZ: It's so interesting and personally satisfying that "Kites" reached you in that way. For me, it was a major turning point in the band. A very good friend of mine died at way too young of an age. It basically reminded me of time and mortality while still falling in line with the presentness we talked about before. The day after he died, I wrote the intro to the song. We slowly added different aspects and melodies to the piece. Moto wrote this beautiful interpretation in the B section of the song. From there it changed conceptually. Ignacio came in at this same time and added a lot. It's a song that kind of redefined us as a band. The different forms and arrangements we all worked on together. It was very emotional, especially for me, with the loss of my friend. He was an Indian American film maker named Prashant Bhargava. He did this gorgeous film called Patang (Kite). It is about these kite festivals they have in India. Roger Ebert said he was next big thing, then he died of a heart attack at age thirty-eight. Way too young.

AAJ: Way too young indeed. Very sorry for your loss. So, the song, then, is in relation to the movie, but born out of respect for your friend?

MZ: Thank you. Yes. They actually have kite fights in these festivals where small pieces of broken glass are placed on the threads of the kites. They will battle other kites and try to cut the line. So, there was a lot of imagery of this floating space and big crescendos where the wind is coming in. Then rigid moments where it is kind of jerking around. All that imagery came into play in our minds when we wrote "Kites."

AAJ: Storytelling is obviously more difficult with any form of instrumental music without a vocal telling the story. Yet your music is very revealing in that sense.

MF: Lyrics are great. But they can actually limit the image. With instrumental music it may be hard to convey the image or idea, but it reaches the listeners heart. One can feel the image so much greater. Our song "The Wall" on Rising, I believe, is another excellent example of that.

AAJ: How much time did it take to complete a work like this?

MF: I would say about one year. But "Kites" was actually mostly written before that.

MZ: Yes, that's about right. "Kites" has gone through many changes. We even play it differently now. I don't think it is even done yet. A record is a representation of a time period. It's not necessarily a finished product.

AAJ: I love that line. That's beautiful. I totally get what you are saying there. That the music can continue to grow indefinitely.

MZ: For sure. We play songs from ten years ago that are SO different now. They continue to evolve. They should change. Why else would people want to continue to come to your shows?

AAJ: It's a reflection, then, of life changing and evolving.

MZ: If the music is really about you, and you change, then the music has to change as well.

AAJ: With the intricacies of your music, in particular with the dulcimer, is it difficult to recreate your songs or your sound in a live setting?

MZ: No. Most of the time it's not so hard. The only time it is hard is if you don't practice the song (with a laugh).

AAJ: Just like anybody else. I'm glad to hear that, because I know some bands do have trouble recreating their sound in a live performance. On that note, how much touring do you do on average? You are currently on tour, yes?

MZ: Yes. The past three or four years have been very heavy touring. We have been pretty much all over the country and to Europe this year and have shows booked over the next few months as well. In November, we are going to Hong Kong. Very excited to do that. It will be our first time out there. The vast majority are our own gigs, but we also did two tours opening up for Snarky Puppy this year.

AAJ: Let's talk about your fan base. Do you find that your music appeals to both jazz and perhaps prog rock listeners? And/or is there another genre, like maybe world music that finds it to their liking?

IRB: We get people from all of that. And all ages. It can really vary from show to show, the type of people that come out. Which I find, I guess, very promising that we reach a lot of different listeners.

AAJ: Quality music is ageless. Well, I have thoroughly, and I say that with emphasis, enjoyed talking with the three of you today. In closing, I will say that I have great respect for artists that play what they feel and that are passionate about what they do. That get more satisfaction in the accomplishment of more challenging and complex works, than in pandering to the masses. Thank you for your time and thank you for House of Waters.

MZ, MF, IRB: (somewhat all together) Wow, thank you for that. Thank you for the opportunity to talk with All About Jazz. Really enjoyed talking with you.




Nov 7 Thu

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