A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Amy Touchette

Drummer Tomas Fujiwara has been a central figure in a number of different communities of forward thinking improvisers, including Anthony Braxton, Taylor Ho Bynum, Mary Halvorson, and many others. This Friday, September 22nd, Fujiwara returns to the Gallery with his Triple Double ensemble to celebrate the upcoming release of their newest eponymous album on Firehouse 12. The group features 3 pairs of exhaustively-creative improvisers—brass players Taylor Ho Bynum and Ralph Alessi; guitarists Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook, and drummer Gerald Cleaver paired up with Fujiwara. Check out the new track “Blueberry Eyes” below.

We caught up with Fujiwara by phone to talk through the conceptual underpinnings of the music for the band, especially how he uses different combinations of players in each piece.

The Jazz Gallery: Over the years, you’ve played in Taylor Ho Bynum’s Sextet, Mary Halvorson has been in previous ensembles of yours, and you released a trio album with Brandon Seabrook and Ralph Alessi. So for this band, how did Gerald Cleaver come into the fold?

Tomas Fujiwara: I’ve always admired Gerald’s playing, his work as a drummer, composer, bandleader, artist, and he’s been a friend for some years. As drummers, we rarely get to play together in an ensemble context. So when assembling this group with the ‘mirror instrumentation,’ he was the first one to come to mind. I wanted to sit at the drums and have a musical conversation with him. I’ve worked with other drummers before, such as on an Anthony Braxton trio record with Tom Rainey, and with Living By Lanterns, Mike Reed and Jason Adasiewicz’s group. I’ve done a fair amount of double drumming, considering how infrequent it usually is. But with this group it was less about Gerald being a drummer and more about putting different voices together. The instrumentation came more into focus once we started to explore different configurations of the ensemble.

TJG: Speaking of ‘different configurations,’ you mentioned in an interview with us last year that “I wrote specific parts for everyone. There will be a lot of multiple ensembles happening.” Could you talk about that idea, of ‘multiple ensembles,’ and how that concept has evolved as the group has matured?

TF: In the composing and arranging process, I look at every combination possible with these six musicians. From solo to sextet, and every duo and trio in between. In terms of the evolution, I was initially thinking about two trios. Visually, almost facing each other, each person having their foil. We do have moments like that in the group. But the idea of three duos has also emerged gradually. On the album, there are some clear duo moments. Gerald and I have a drum duet, Mary and Brandon have a guitar duet, and so on. That being said, there are plenty of moments of two drummers and one guitar player, two horns and one drum. We tried every combination of the six of us. Just looking at three names on paper, knowing these musicians, would give me a new, different trio sound in your head. When arranging these pieces and searching for a mood, I’d think of the configurations as a kind of color palette, while at the same time trying to give a lot to the unknown, to be open to the experience of exploration.

TJG: Does the ensemble naturally fall into two ‘trios’ of drums, guitar, and brass, and if so, who gravitates towards whom?

TF: No, that never happens. I would say that most of the improvised sections have a fixed grouping of people, specific to the arrangement of the song. Places where people have free agency to jump in or out, people are being guided by what’s happening in the moment. I never get the sense of “Oh, so-and-so’s playing, I want to play with him now.” Everyone’s thinking of it as a whole, with balance, texture, and so on.

TJG: When did your compositional and arrangement skills feel most stretched or challenged in developing the material for this project?

TF: Good question. I would say that my compositional process, in general, is pretty tedious. When I sit down to write music, I’ve made my peace with the fact that it’ll be a slower process than I want it to be. I want to look at a piece from different angles, exhaust possibilities, whittle it down. And I try not to have that feel discouraging, like I haven’t gotten anything done. So, it’s all challenging, but in terms of this specific ensemble, whatever stretch or challenge I felt was the enjoyable part of the process. It was probably happening all the time and I wasn’t noticing it, because I was being pushed out of my comfort zone, being inspired. I don’t want to know what a piece is going to sound like before we start playing it, or before I give it to a specific musician. That’s one way in which my skills are stretched, but that’s one of the main reasons to do it in the first place.

TJG: Your double trio doesn’t have any “bass instruments.” What opportunities does that afford you?

TF: I’m always aware of the range of the instruments, but probably utilize the lower end of both guitars in different sections. Mary uses an octave pedal once in a while. I didn’t want her to do it throughout; it’s more of an effect. With these musicians, it’s more about what’s there and what they’re feeling. Space is a great thing to have. We don’t necessarily need traditional root movement or low-end to keep grooves, outline forms, say what we want to say. Yes, more of that responsibility probably falls on the guitar and drums. But the questions aren’t like, “What would a bass be doing on this piece?” Rather, it’s more like “If so-and-so were playing bass in this ensemble, what would they be playing?” Thinking about individual voices, not instruments. And in general, not having that low register, that color, is a welcome challenge.

TJG: Speaking of traditional roles, in what ways do you count on Cleaver in the ensemble, if any? In what ways do you think he counts on you?

TF: It’s much more of a conversation. I don’t think either one of us needs the other to keep us in line. I have some specific pieces with instructions, notations, and more, so there’s a layering of rhythmic roles on certain pieces. There’s a mutual understanding of what the other’s doing ahead of time, how our parts are layered. But other than that, it’s less about “I’m a drummer, he’s a drummer; what do drummers do?” It’s more about the two of us really playing with each other, using our ears, like we would with anyone else. Thinking about textures, letting sound guide the process. Who knows, maybe I would have thought about it more with a different drummer. But from the first note of the first rehearsal, it felt natural and comfortable. Our time, our feel, our dynamics, everything was in sync. From the downbeat, we were musicians playing together. The thoughts are never like, “Oh he’s playing the ride cymbal here, so maybe I’ll do something else.” That stuff doesn’t even cross our minds when we’re playing. I have played with other drummers where there are more technical considerations. But with Gerald, it was free and comfortable from the start.

TJG: You performed at The Gallery with Double Trio immediately before recording the album. How did the show prime you for the recording process?

TF: With all new ensembles, all new music, you never know what it’s going to sound like before you do it. Maybe even more so with my approach, because I like to choose combinations of musicians that maybe aren’t obvious to the outside observer, and to compose music to push that combination. There’s improvising, blending, sound, textures. So with The Jazz Gallery, it was an opportunity to hear and feel it all out, to just go for it in front of a crowd. We could take chances, trust each other, and experience like that comes through on the recording. We went into the studio, went for it, didn’t do a ton of takes. Nobody had their head buried in the music. We took chances there too. Things had a rawness to them. The studio isn’t as dynamic an environment as a live concert state, so the experience at The Jazz Gallery helped prime us for the studio session in that way.

TJG: Dan Bilawsky, in his review on All About Jazz, wrote about the introduction to “Diving For Quarters,” saying that “If you make it through that rough and prickly patch mentally intact, you’re in for a treat.” He meant it as a compliment, and rightfully so, but are you ever concerned that your music may come across as inaccessible?

TF: For me, the main thing is to honestly present music that’s very personal to me. I present it to the audience in the hope that, whether or not they like it, they appreciate the intent, the honesty, the personal nature of it. I’d prefer not to chase a notion of “what people like.” It seems maddening to have these hypothetical masses that you’re trying to appease and please. I’m not saying I don’t care if people don’t like my music. Of course I want that. But what’s important for me is that as many people as possible hear my music, and take their own personal impressions from that experience. From me, that’s way beyond liking or not liking it. What emotions did it bring up? What did it visualize? What personal experiences popped into their head while listening, creating a unique connection between the band and their own life? For me, that’s the most important thing.

Tomas Fujiwara and Triple Double celebrate the release of Triple Double at The Jazz Gallery this Friday, September 22nd, 2017. The group features Mr. Fujiwara and Gerald Cleaver on drums, Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet, Ralph Alessi on trumpet, and Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook on guitar. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $22 general admission ($12 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.