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Tomas Fujiwara and the Hook up - Actionspeak (2010)


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By Mark Saleski

Many years ago, while stuck in traffic during the evening commute, I heard a radio segment on microtonal composer Easely Blackwood. I had read about things like microtones, 24-note equal tunings, and the like, but somehow none of the music had ever made it's way into my ears. Some of the pieces played that evening were so striking to my ears, so otherworldly, that I almost had to pull over onto the side of the road to complete the listen. It was that engrossing.

The recording they were playing cuts from was called Microtonal. It took me a while to find a copy of the disc (this might have been before Amazon was an option), but when I did, my ears were enthralled. Much has been written about the initial perceptions of microtonal music, employing words like “jarring" and “shocking." My reaction wasn't nearly that aggressive. Maybe years of listening to Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, and Peter Brotzmann can do that to a person. No, the most accurate description would be “fascinated."

The images that formed in my head as I heard these new sounds were quite ephemeral, eluding easy description. And then one afternoon, the answer came: fish tanks. Have you ever looked diagonally through an aquarium and them moved your head just a little? Did you notice how the image of those beautiful fish became distorted? That is exactly how my ear parts think of the harmonies that occur during many microtonal compositions. The music can sound “normal" and then “bend" into a different shape, one that retains elements of what we know as western music while displaying these completely new facets and geometries.

Since then, this newfound imagery has been useful when applied to other forms of music. There are times when no amount of language will do a better job than “bending."

And so it is with Tomas Fujiwara & The Hook Up. There are times during Actionspeak when the music does just that: bend. Fujiwara has put together a program of original compositions that makes terrific use of his Hook Up cohorts: Danton Boller on bass, Brian Settles (tenor sax), Jonathan Finlayson (trumpet), and then Fujiwara's secret weapon—Mary Halvorson on guitar.

To hear a musical construct slowly morphing during its short life, check out “Folly Cove." Reminiscent of The Lounge Lizards, the tune opens with a noirish figure repeated several times by saxophonist Settles. Danton Boller then joins in on bowed bass, delivering short comments on the original riff before going off to explore its extensions. By the time Fujiwara joins in at the kit, the structure that is only implied early on has begun to bloom. This process continues as Halvorson and Finlayson add the final touches. Ah, but we're not done yet. The entire band drops away, giving the guitar and trumpet space for more explorations. When the new direction is set, the drums and bass come back in for support. At one point Fujiwara takes a solo that illustrates his orchestral use of the kit. With muted sticks and subtle brushwork, he sets up a framework for the sly groove that follows. As with all great jazz, the written and improvised parts melt into one another.

But what about the bending, you might be thinking? Go back to the opening track “The Hunt," and bring in Fujiwara's “secret weapon." Mary Halvorson plays mostly clean-toned guitar that comes at the listener from so many unexpected angles. During this composition, she sets up chordal and melodic walls that are warped in mid-delivery to reshape entire passages in real time. Is she using a whammy bar? A whammy pedal? I sort of don't care, because the result is phenomenal.

Just know that Tomas Fujiwara has put together quite a unique ensemble. Kidding about fishtanks aside, this is a group worthy further investigations. Be careful if you're listening in your car. You just might have to pull over to the side of the road.

Actionspeak will be released on September 14, 2010 and can be purchased directly from 482 Music.

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