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...


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