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House of Waters: The Fresh Fountain of Fusion

Jim Worsley By

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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.
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