Tomas Fujiwara: The More the Better

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I am extremely lucky that all the music I’m involved with I really care about: whether I’m leading it, whether it’s a collective, whether I’m a sideman--I feel very invested in the music, and I’m given space to do my thing. I’m given input, both musically and otherwise—not only with artists I respect, but human beings that I really respect and have a lot of love for.
—Tomas Fujiwara
Drummer Tomas Fujiwara is a man on a mission. With recent and upcoming projects too many to list, he's one of the most widely recorded and in-demand drummers in contemporary creative jazz. Somehow he found the time to talk with All About Jazz right after a sound check in preparation for his Triple Double sextet's headlining performance on October 21 at Ann Arbor, Michigan's Edgefest festival. Fujiwara spoke about the music on Triple Double (out October 20 on Firehouse 12 Records), the various influences that have shaped his compositions, as well as the opportunities and challenges of engaging younger audiences in creative jazz and improvised music.

All About Jazz: Why don't we start by talking about your new record. The concept and instrumentation you're using are really interesting. What led you to put this together?

Tomas Fujiwara: The main guiding principle was the actual musical personalities of the people in the group. I have a trio with Ralph Alessi and Brandon Seabrook, so we had done some playing. We did a live record [Variable Bets, on Relative Pitch Records] and I was really enjoying that trio. I wanted to do a project that included Mary Halvorson and Taylor Ho Bynum, who are two of my closest collaborators over the last 10, 15, 20 years...and Gerald Cleaver has always been one of my favorite drummers, composers, and bandleaders. So as I started to think about the band and musical personalities, sound, and concepts, these people were kind of swirling around in my head. And that came together into this kind of three duos/two trios idea. It was not at all about hearing this instrumentation first and then finding the people who would fit that concept. I initially thought of it as two trios, but as the music has evolved as we've played it, I've almost thought of it as three duos even more than as two trios. So it's always changing. But certainly the first impulse was the specific sound of each of the musicians.

AAJ: Do you find that when you're playing live that you sometimes position the musicians differently based on this evolution that you're talking about?

TF: No, this is the "stage plot," for lack of a better word, that we've used since the first gig. And I did think about it in terms of the combinations of musicians...I thought of this setup before the first gig, and it seemed to work so we've kept it this way. And obviously in the studio, it's a different setup and sonic environment. But in terms of live performance, we've always done it this way, and I think it works really well, with the various groupings and pairings and trios.

AAJ: Had you played with another drummer before?

TF: Yeah. The Chicago drummer Mike Reed had a band called Living by Lanterns for a while, and we were both drummers in that. I've played in some of Curtis Hasselbring's groups with Ches Smith, Jim Black, Satoshi Takeishi...I did an Anthony Braxton Trio album, which was Anthony Braxton, myself and Tom Rainey, which was a four-CD set, and Taylor [Ho Bynum]'s sextet for the last album that we did added Chad Taylor for some of the music, so Chad and I were playing drums and vibes on some of that stuff. So I have a fair amount of experience doing that, and more often than not I have a really great time.

AAJ: Is it ever hard to stay out of each other's way?

TF: I think it can be, but just in my experience with the people I've done it with it really hasn't been. I can see how there could potentially be challenges, but for me 99% of it has been really inspiring and a real joy. Sometimes you might have to work out certain textural or timbral things or certain concepts of time, but I've been lucky that the people I've done it with are all not only amazing musicians—because I think you can be an amazing drummer and not necessarily vibe with another drummer—but they've all been great drummers who are also very into making it work, and having fun with it. And every second playing with Gerald in this project has been a total joy. My mom came to one concert and she said that she'd never seen me smile on stage so much.

AAJ: That's a good sign.

TF: Usually I have a pretty serious face—not on purpose, but I guess my general "concentration face" is pretty serious. And she was saying, "Why were you smiling?" It's because I'm having a ball. I think it's something about someone that's playing the same instrument, hearing the communication coming from that instrument, and having a dialogue in that way that is just really inspiring.

AAJ: One of the songs on your current release, "For Alan," has a clip of a very young Tomas having a lesson with Alan Dawson, your teacher at the time. You were pretty young there, so you've been playing jazz a long time —going how far back?

TF: Well, I started studying with Alan when I was ten years old, but I wasn't really listening to it much at that point. Ironically, the record that made me want to play drums is a jazz record: the Buddy Rich/Max Roach record Rich versus Roach. But I didn't know that that was jazz at the time. If you see the record cover, it's Buddy Rich and Max Roach sitting at these beautiful drumsets, impeccably dressed, facing each other in these cool dueling poses, and so I just wondered what it would sound like, and I put it on, and it was the sound of drums, and I knew I wanted to try that. But I didn't know that I was listening to jazz, or what these songs were, or even what the other instruments were.

When I started studying with Alan, a lot of Alan's teaching incorporated repertoire and incorporated singing while playing various drum exercises, so you have to learn songs to sing that are in different forms, like AABA form, ABAC form, so through that I started to learn about the music. And he was also an excellent vibraphonist, so he would end every lesson with a duet, and that's also how I learned the repertoire. So through him, starting around the age of 10, I started—probably a little bit reluctantly—learning this music from my lessons, and then as I got more and more into it I started taking the initiative to check out all kinds of stuff. And then once I was in high school and playing jazz with other people—Taylor actually being one of them; Taylor was way more advanced in terms of his awareness of a lot of different kinds of music...

AAJ: So you've known him since high school?

TF: We didn't go to high school together, but I met him when we were both in high school, and we played a handful of times in high school. And he already had every Miles Davis album, and he was already deep into it. I moved to New York when I was 17, and at that point I was very into checking out as much music, both live and recorded, as possible. And I really became interested in the history, the people, and the stories, and how it connected to the culture of the times. And that's ongoing.

AAJ: Listening to your previous work and this album, there are other influences that are there—for instance, a rock influence. Where did that come from?

TF: When I first started playing drums, I wanted to play the music on the radio that my friends were listening to, so a lot of that was rock. Unfortunately, a lot of that in that era was hair-rock... but also I got really into hip-hop, and hip-hop was actually a way that I learned about jazz, because at that time they wrote out where the samples came from on the CDs. So that's how I learned about James Brown through the funky drummer breakbeat, or if they sampled a Milt Jackson riff, I would go check that out. Or Ron Carter, on [A Tribe Called Quest's] Low End Theory, and even those Jazzmatazz records, I think Donald Byrd was on one of them, Roy Ayers...so I've always paid attention to popular music.

AAJ: Could you say something about the role that family plays in your music? A lot of your songs have dedications to various members of your family—including The Air is Different, which had a photo of your grandfather on the cover, correct?

TF: Yes. One of the compositions on that album was written after my grandfather had just passed. He was a Buddhist priest, and I took a bell/bowl from the temple as a keepsake, and I didn't use it that much, but one day I played it and listened to it, and I heard all of this resonance and I started writing a piece based on that. And then as I was writing more music around that time for the Hook Up, I drew more inspiration from my time with him and my grandmother in Japan. They lived in a beautiful, remote place, and the temple was attached to the house, and I would go there a lot in the summers as a kid. So that was on my mind. But with a lot of my inspiration for pieces, I don't want to be too overt about it; I really want the listener to take their own experience from it. So a piece that might be inspired by my grandfather, if it makes someone else think of, I don't know, an ocean seascape, that's great. And I feel that if there are too many pieces where I'm telling people exactly what they're about, and the inspiration, I feel like that limits their experience and limits their creativity as it relates to the music that I'm trying to produce. Because I think listening can be very creative and evocative and also individual, varying from person to person.

That photograph [from The Air is Different] was taken at the Emperor's Palace, and my grandfather had received that medal that he has on his jacket from the emperor for his contributions to the country as both a priest and in education, as he was superintendent of schools in their town. And I always love that photo, so when I was thinking about the layout for the album, and some visual stuff, that really resonated with me. And then I wrote a piece about him in the album liner notes. But more of the music was inspired by things like that, and I was less obvious about stating those things—again, to let people take what they will from it. But I think that's a nice way to show the personal nature of the pieces I compose, and it doesn't give too much away, because if you don't know my grandfather you can know that a piece might be inspired by him. You can see that as part of my process, but you can also take something of your own away from it. And Triple Double is dedicated to my four grandmothers: pieces are inspired by them and by certain memories, but I spell that out a little less. You know it's dedicated to these important women in my life, but I don't think I say which songs and in what way they inspire me. And I like that: I give you a little and let you figure it out.

And that's also the way I compose when I have great musicians to compose for—I don't want to spell everything out. I was just explaining this to someone last night at the workshop we did at the University of Michigan, when they were asking me how I write. And when I write it all out, it's maybe twice as much information as what I end up giving to the band. So I might write something super-specific—articulation, dynamics, et cetera—but then I might pull out certain things when I give them the music, and let them interpret it the way they want.

AAJ: Do you use a piano when you write?

TF: Yeah—I'll use the piano, I'll use the vibes, I'll use the drum set. I'll do some writing away from an instrument, and I'll use the computer. It changes from piece to piece. With most of my compositions I'll probably end up using most of those things, but depending on what the first instrument is, that might make a difference between a piece that originated on the piano versus a piece that originated on the drum set.

AAJ: Do you find that when you sit down to write that you're already thinking of who's going to be playing which part?

TF: I always write for specific musicians with specific ensembles. Usually I pretty much know who will be doing what—certainly the people that I'm writing for, I have that in my head because their sound on their instruments is a big guide. Sometimes once you hear it played by everyone, you'll make some changes: let's double this part, or move this part from this sonic personality to someone else. That comes into the arranging process, which is half done before we play it and half done once we play through it.

AAJ: Along with Mary Halvorson, Taylor Ho Bynum, Jonathan Finlayson and other people you've worked with most heavily, you represent a lot of the current generation of top-tier improvisers—musicians in their thirties and forties. Do you feel that as the audience for this music is aging, that it's getting harder to connect younger fans to the music, or do you not see that as a challenge?

TF: It depends on a lot of factors. I think a lot of it has to with where we're at culturally—in terms of engaging with live performance, in terms of how we access and relate to recorded music. And I think that improvised creative music is certainly affected, but I think that everything is affected, musically and otherwise. It's important to find a way to engage listeners, both seasoned veterans and those who are new to it. I think everyone has a different approach. For me, I've never tried to figure out what a given person or audience is going to like. Because that's not my ultimate goal. My ultimate goal isn't to make music that is as liked as possible. It's to make music that is as personal to me as possible, and then to try to get that out there as much as I can. I just want ears to hear it and to experience it, and react however they want to react. And that's the challenge—it's in finding those outlets in a changing landscape to get that music heard, both the recorded music and live performance. And I go through phases with that. Sometimes I feel very hopeful and positive, especially at a festival like this, with a lot of die-hard fans who've been a part of it for all 21 years, or yesterday engaging University of Michigan students who are interested in this music and some of whom performed at the festival.

But then sometimes you get an overall feeling that maybe the younger generation isn't interested at all. But I feel like I have enough moments of hope and encouragement that I keep trying, and if I ever get a chance to play the music for a younger audience, or talk to them about it, if it's right in front of them they understand how it can be related to their current experience—that it's not dated music, and it's not museum music, and that it's a reflection of people now and how they are experiencing life and the world around them.

But it's a challenge for everyone, and not just niche art and music. It's definitely important to me, and I try to engage as wide a range of audiences as possible. I mean, how did I end up here? I didn't grow up around this music, I didn't grow up with this music in the house, and I didn't grow up around musicians. And I still fell in love. So you have to believe there are people out there who are waiting to fall in love with it as well. That's how I was with the music: there was something about the music that felt very genuine and very personal and very expressive and very current and very energetic, and that kept my interest, both as a musician but also as a listener. I still consider myself a listener. Last night I didn't play, but I was here all night checking out all these people, and I was really inspired and moved. It made me think, it made me feel, it made me question...

AAJ: Are there any upcoming projects you're particularly excited about?

TF: Well, Thumbscrew [with Halvorson and Michael Formanek] has two albums coming out in the spring. Halvorson has a new project called Code Girl, and that will be coming out in the spring. I recorded a new album with the Tomeka Reid Quartet, so that will be out at some point...Illegal Crowns, which is a collective with Benoit Delbecq, Taylor Ho Bynum and Mary Halvorson, will be recording our second album in a few weeks in Paris, so that should be out at some point next year. Taylor is recording another album next year...we have a quartet of Mary's that was put together to play John Zorn's compositions for his Bagatelles marathon, and we just recorded the last Book of Angels CD, so that came out also this month. We'll be doing some stuff both with the Bagatelles and playing [Zorn's] Masada music next year and into 2019. I love that band and love playing that music. So I am extremely lucky that all the music I'm involved with I really care about: whether I'm leading it, whether it's a collective, whether I'm a sideman—I feel very invested in the music, and I'm given space to do my thing. I'm given input, both musically and otherwise—not only with artists I respect, but human beings that I really respect and have a lot of love for.

AAJ: It sounds like you're going to need a full-time handler.

TF: (laughs) I would love that. I'm always happier when I'm crazy busy. I never complain—you'll never hear me say, "Oh, it's just so busy right now." And it's because I really love what I do and I love the people I do it with. So the more the better. And there are always little breaks in there, so I make sure when those happen that I take advantage of whatever I feel I need at that time, whether it's taking a full-on break or vacation, or whether it's spending some time studying something else or practicing...but I feel very fortunate. Even the Triple Double band: everyone in the band is such an amazing artist and person, and so I want to do as much as possible to work on that too. The album came out yesterday, so I'll be trying to get opportunities for that group. I'm doing a week at the Stone in the spring, so we'll be playing as part of that, and we're playing in Austria next month, so I'll be looking forward to that as well.

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