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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Fujiwara-Halvorson-Bynum

L to R: Tomas Fujiwara, Taylor Ho Bynum, and Mary Halvorson. Photo courtesy of the artists.

Throughout his career, drummer Tomas Fujiwara has not shied away from taking risks. This adventurousness has made him an ideal collaborator with the likes of Anthony Braxton, Meshell Ndegeocello, and John Zorn. He has also found a strong circle of colleagues, always ready for trips into soundscapes unknown. Among them are guitarist Mary Halvorson and cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, both of whom have appeared with Fujiwara in several projects over the past two decades. The three are now touring as a trio, and will take the stage at The Jazz Gallery this Saturday, June 19. We caught up with Fujiwara to discuss how the pandemic has shaped his art, this new trio, and the importance of playing before live audiences again.

The Jazz Gallery: How do you feel the pandemic has impacted you creatively? 

Tomas Fujiwara: Well, it certainly gave me many more opportunities to think, observe, and reflect. It has also provided me a lot of time to practice and compose. Most other musicians I’ve spoken to have used the year to focus on new compositional projects, to study the music of another composer, or to add another instrument to their repertoire. I’ve done those things as well. In particular, the pandemic allowed me to practice the vibraphone more than I ever have before, which has been nice. I’ve played on the instrument before, but this year has given me the opportunity to dive deeper.

TJG:  What are your plans with the vibraphone? Are you just experimenting or do you have a specific project in mind? 

TF: Both.

I’ve been studying the instrument more and getting more comfortable with expressing myself creatively on it. But I’ve also been working towards a specific project. Mary [Halvorson], Michael [Formanek], and I will be recording a new Thumbscrew album later this summer. On it, I will be playing a significant amount of vibraphone.  So the three of us have been composing a lot of music for the instrument as part of that project.

I have also found that playing the vibraphone has been a great compositional tool for me. Playing the instrument has opened up my composing in new ways.

TJG: How so?  

TF: I think in some ways the vibraphone is an ideal instrument for me to use for composition because it allows me to use a lot of the techniques that I use on the drum set. I can readily draw upon my background in stick and mallet techniques, which gives a certain comfort during the process.

But there’s also something about the instrument’s resonance that speaks to me in terms of hearing harmonies. I feel like it gives me an incredibly clear expression of my harmonic ideas. It helps me more directly take my thoughts and then translate them to written music. It also helps that visually the vibraphone is like a keyboard. It allows you to literally see all of the notes, from high to low, and give ideas for melodic shapes.

So, I feel like the vibraphone is the best of all of those worlds, and composing on it feels incredibly comfortable.

TJG: Speaking of your compositions, how do you feel working with Anthony Braxton has influenced your approach to writing music? 

TF: I would say the biggest thing I have taken from him is to just go for things and take risks. Don’t question your creativity or ideas before you’ve gone forward and put them out there. If you have an idea, just run with it. Maybe you edit or condense it later but don’t stop yourself before you’ve even started. Go for big ideas; for those that you might initially think too ambitious or crazy or that don’t think will fit within a certain category or box. Questioning how you will pull something off can keep you from expressing your full creativity.

I feel like Anthony is a perfect model of someone that just constantly goes forward with full conviction and force. That’s the biggest thing that I’ve learned from my times around him. Of course, all of his compositions are part of this incredibly creative mind. They’re great to listen to, play, study and analyze. But, to me, the big takeaway is to consistently go forward and take chances. Put yourself out there and not question or second guess yourself. I always say he’s one of the most inspiring people to be around, even if you’re not playing music. Even just being in the same room with him, he has this incredible energy that I find amazingly inspiring.

TJG: The trio you will be presenting at The Jazz Gallery includes two other Braxton collaborators- Mary Halvorson and Taylor Ho Bynum. You’ve worked with both on several other projects before. What is it about both of them that you feel most resonates with your own musical ideas?  

TF: We’ve known each other for so long; for the majority of our musical lives really. Because we have such a long history together, there is a tremendous sense of trust between us and also a great sense of openness. We feel very comfortable with putting ourselves out there knowing we have each other’s backs. Our relationships create an environment incredibly conducive to taking chances and striving for new forms of expression. It also helps push us out of our comfort zones. Those sorts of things can come only from a great sense of trust.

At the same time, we’re different people. We have diverse life experiences and varied interests in art and music. These differences often allow us to inspire one another.  Over the years, we have also grown as musicians. Some of those experiences are from times we’ve been together and others from our times apart.

So, you end up with an arrangement that feels very familiar and incredibly comfortable but also exhilarating. You know that you have to be on your toes and ready for something to happen that hasn’t before.

TJG: How much of your music for the trio is precomposed and how much of it is improvised? 

TF: There is very little music that any of the three of us make which is either entirely improvised or wholly composed. Instead, our music is usually some balance between the two. When making music, the exact balance between the two ultimately depends on the ensemble.

With this trio, we are all writing some new music specifically for this group. On the tour, we will be playing a combination of these new pieces and some old ones we’ve played together in various ensembles.  We all take the compositional process very seriously. We know that we can write music for this group and that everyone will do their homework and be prepared. But we are also not getting bogged down in the sheet music. We look for new ways to do something creative.

While there are written parts for everyone, we are improvising with those materials in different ways. How precisely we do so ultimately depends on the specific composition.

TJG: As far as the precomposed portions, do you feel it is more difficult to write a piece for the trio given its less traditional instrumentation of drums, guitar, and cornet compared to a more traditional trio?  

TF: It doesn’t cross my mind whether the instrumentation is more or less traditional. I wouldn’t say that that nontraditional instrumentation is easier or harder in terms of writing music. 95% of the music that I write is for specific groups of people and specific individuals. I don’t usually think in terms of what instrument they play so much as the musician himself or herself.

We’re all interested in timbre and sound, so I think it is a welcome challenge to have combinations of people that play instruments you may not typically see. I think you will see that in not just this trio but also other ensembles with which I’ve performed. For instance, Triple Double has two trumpets, two guitars, and two drums. It’s entirely about the people involved and what they sound like and how they express themselves. Also what I think they would sound good playing and what I think would be challenging to them.

TJG: Speaking of Triple Double, that was the last group you presented at The Jazz Gallery before the pandemic. Any plans to record either that group or the trio?  

TF: We recorded a second Triple Double album over a year ago. For various reasons, both related and unrelated to the pandemic, it has not yet been released. But it’s been recorded and mixed. We have a release date set for early next year, and it will be on Firehouse 12 Records.

As for the trio with Mary and Taylor, there are no concrete plans to record in a studio. We are definitely going to record a few of the live performances for ourselves. If we find those recordings are something we want to release down the road, we may do that. Or maybe we just see how we feel after this tour and whether we want to go into the studio. But as of now, we don’t have any specific plans.

TJG: This will be your first tour since the pandemic, right? 

TF: That’s right.

TJG: Do you feel like it’s going to be different to be in front of live audiences again? 

TF: I mean, I’ve done a few live stream performances in the past year but there’s nothing like playing for listeners that are in the same space as you, whether it’s just a few other people or thousands. The audience adds a whole different dimension to the experience. You feel that energy. You feel people listening and engaging with what you’re doing. I am very excited about live performances becoming more common again. Hopefully, one of the many things we learn from the pandemic is just to never take that for granted.

TJG: Do you think audiences will respond at all differently than they would have before 2020?  

TF: That’s a good question. One positive thing that can be taken from not having live music for a while is that it may make people appreciate, cherish, and respect it much more. It will also be great to use this tour to also reconnect with people we may not have seen much during the past year. A lot of the people in our audiences tend to be those who have become friends over the years. And it’s great to see those people when we come to visit.

TJG:  Of course, The Jazz Gallery is one of the places you will be surrounded by friends. What does The Jazz Gallery mean to you?

TF:  It is comforting and meaningful to know there is a place like The Jazz Gallery. A place to perform music and be a part of the community. Somewhere to connect with other musicians and audience members. I don’t take that for granted and am super thankful for the fact that it’s been a place to experience all those things. Those opportunities are the main things that matter to me about The Jazz Gallery, more than some particular concert I heard there or some specific memory from there. Just having a hub and connection point for musicians and non-musicians to experience creative music is incredibly important and valuable. I’m thankful that I’ve been able to spend so much time in that space soaking in that energy.

Fujiwara/Halvorson/Bynum will perform at The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, June 19th, 2021. The group features Tomas Fujiwara on drums, Mary Halvorson on guitar, and Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved table seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.

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