This Saturday, August 11, drummer Tomas Fujiwara and his group Triple Double return to The Jazz Gallery for two sets of music. Featuring brass players Taylor Ho Bynum and Ralph Alessi; guitarists Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook; as well as drummer Gerald Cleaver, the band has cut its teeth on the Gallery stage—they performed here before recording their debut record in 2016, and returned to celebrate the album’s release in 2017. Before their return to the Gallery this weekend, we caught up with Fujiwara to talk about the group’s methods of improvisational interaction, the process of recording their album, and the incredible mentorship of drummer Alan Dawson.
TJG: In the press release for the record, it states that “while these collaborative efforts could define and sustain him, a more ambitious musical intelligence emerges on closer inspection.” What does this mean?
TF: I think part of what was meant here was that, especially as a drummer, you’re very much pigeonholed into being a side-person. Sometimes, especially as it relates to getting your music supported and out into the world and getting opportunities to perform your music live, it’s a little harder than if you played a different instrument. I’ve been so fortunate to be involved with great musicians in their bands and projects as leaders—something I love doing and have no desire to do less off—as well as a number of collective ensembles, that those things could be enough to “define and sustain” me. I certainly don’t want to stop any of that activity, but for me, and certainly other drummers, I’ve made a conscious decision to step out as a bandleader and composer as well. That’s probably what the “more ambitious” part is. For anyone, taking a leadership role is a big challenge and requires a lot from the individual.
TJG: You’ve been playing with the individual members of Triple Double in a variety of arrangements for a long time. How did the Triple Double project arise and come into fruition? When did you first start working on its songbook?
TF: I have a trio with Ralph [Alessi] and Brandon [Seabrook] that I had put together a year before Triple Double. I was really enjoying the gigs we had done, and we made a live record (Variable Bets on Relative Pitch Records). With most of the ensembles I’ve led, from The Hook Up to the trio with Ralph and Brandon, one of my main interests has been new combinations of musicians. In the case of Ralph and Brandon, they had never played together before. There were members of the original Hook Up that had never played together before. So that was one idea behind Triple Double—these new combinations of people that I felt could work and that I was curious to hear how they would interact. Because I think that musicians, artists in general, are put into categories way more than they would actually like to be, and they have more diverse aesthetics than they’re given credit for. I know for myself, I love to get thrown into unusual situations, or situations where it’s not quite my comfort zone, or the usual cast of characters I might be playing with at that time.
So that was one thing behind it—taking the trio and thinking about it as a template for new combinations. Then, being a drummer, I’ve always loved the drums but also the sound of multiple percussion ensembles, whether it be two drum sets or drum set and any number of percussion instruments from around the world. I love the vibraphone, the marimba, etc. The album that first got me interested in drums was Rich Versus Roach, which isn’t quite a double drum album but a conversation between two drummers and their bands. Years ago, I toured with Stomp, which was essentially an eight person percussion ensemble, and it could be really fun when everything was really in sync and everyone was communicating and forming this unified voice. So that’s something that I’ve always been interested in doing something with two drums but, also, something with Gerald [Cleaver] specifically, who is one of my absolute favorites, and wanting to get in there and have a musical dialogue with him. With Taylor [Ho Bynum] and Mary [Halvorson], two musicians who I’ve played with and known the longest, we have so much history and such a rapport from all of the music we’ve played in various ensembles—I wanted to include them as well. It was really more about the personalities and a sonic idea, and then it took shape into these three duos, or two trios, and this mirroring effect in terms of the instrumentation. Taylor and Ralph had never played together, me and Gerald had never played together, so there were also a lot of first times, which was cool—to see those relationships develop over time within this group.
TJG: Where was the album recorded?
TF: Firehouse 12 in New Haven, CT.
TJG: The whole thing in a live room, everyone together?
TF: We had the drums and guitars in one room, and each trumpet/cornet isolated.
TJG: The reason I ask is because one of the things I really love about the record, and there are so many moments where one can hear this, is that the trios seem to be split symmetrically between the left and right channels. Especially on a track like the opening one, “Diving For Quarters,” one hears the interaction spatialized very clearly, with Mary Halvorson consistently on the left and Brandon Seabrook consistently on the right.
TF: Well, the credit for that goes to Nick Lloyd. It’s his label and studio, and he engineered the session, as well as mixed and mastered the album. He just knows the room and the board and the equipment so well, has an amazing ear and is great to work with. We certainly talked about the sound for the album but the majority of the credit goes to him in terms of getting these great sounds and really figuring out how we wanted these 6 musicians to exist in the space. In terms of the drums, we talked a lot about the sound, and it was about wanting to find that balance between these two distinctive drummers, but then also creating a kind of eight-limbed drummer, and I feel like he achieved that very well. Sonically, he gets the credit and did an amazing job.