A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Amy Touchette

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.

TJG: What were the instructions given for the two guitar interplay in the beginning of the opening track, “Diving For Quarters?” And how did you approach the composition at large? They all strike me as having very strong melodic leads.

TF: Each one is different. Answering your specific question about “Diving For Quarters,” that’s a dyad where Mary and Brandon can choose the range of where they’re putting it. They can be minor seconds or major sevenths or minor ninths, etc., and they can be played lower to create almost a pedal effect, higher almost as a melodic thing, and they’re improvising around that in the opening. They have some instructions and some written material but there’s also a lot of open space for them, and the band knows the cue that I’m giving to move on to the next section where everyone has written material except for Taylor, who’s improvising in this new space we’ve segued into. Then there’s the main melody, and people’s parts include the melody, the harmony, and different counterlines—those are all written out. With sections like that, I’ll write everything and give a few instructions but then it’s really on every individual to interpret their parts how they want to. A big part of choosing musicians to play my music is to allow them to interpret their parts in the way that they feel works best, y’know? And once in a while, I might say something if it’s not quite capturing the mood that I want. But the majority, 99% of the time, I trust the way that they interpret the material and it’s always cool. I’ve written this stuff out but then I really want them to do what they want, and I might specify if something has to stay in a form, or can break out of a form, or should break out of a form. Especially with this ensemble, where the instruments are doubled, I might specify—if you’re playing a doubled part, you might have little more freedom to get off the page knowing that someone else is covering your part. I’ll designate what I call a Free Agent in certain sections—we’re all playing this written material and you have free agency to improvise, or lay out, or double someone else’s part, or add texture. So pretty much in every section, like you brought up in “Diving For Quarters,” there’s some stuff that’s written and some stuff that’s directed beforehand, and a lot of it that’s left open to interpretation.

TJG: Did the bass-less-ness of the record ever worry you? For example, on “Blueberry Eyes,” I hear some octave-pedalled guitars filling in the space on Mary’s side, and some deep, throaty riffing from Brandon.

TF: Mary has an octave pedal on just a little bit of the record. We certainly did not want to abuse that, and we’ve done gigs where she didn’t have the octave pedal at all and it was totally fine. She has a really big guitar, with a big sound and rich low end, so some of that space can be taken up sonically and texturally just from that. The lack of bass is purposeful and I didn’t want to overcompensate for that by having other instruments play out of character to cover up the space left by the bass.

On “Blueberry Eyes,” each section has these two lines that work on their own, and in tandem, and different people are assigned different lines, while others improvise. This is one of those pieces where, in each section, we know who’s going to be a little more of a free agent and who’s going to hold it down. So that’s where the trust part comes in, to just know that people are going to fulfill their roles—I trust their judgment to hear what’s happening in the moment and to contribute something that’s going to add to the overall sound, a more complete sound rather than just covering what could be a bass line or chord voicings for example. And each time is different, in terms of how we deal with the material. Also, as it relates the issue of bass-less-ness and low end, a part of that area of sound is covered by the drums—Gerald and I are using slightly bigger drums, bigger shells than we do in other contexts.

TJG: To cover a bit of that lower register?

TF: Yeah, it’s a lower register and a lower presence, a fatness there. Gerald is playing a 24” bass drum. I had a couple of floor toms, one was tuned super low. So just thinking in those terms, trying to get a full sonic palette with this instrumentation. But I don’t think anyone is self-conscious or trying to compensate, more just looking at the sonic environment, everyone using their ears and trusting their taste. And that’s not something I really needed to discuss—people took their parts, and made music with them, and created what I think is a distinctive sound in terms of not just the instrumentation, but the musical personalities within this ensemble. That was the main thing.

TJG: Were there any inspirations for the album that might surprise people?

TF: When I’m writing music, I don’t find it helpful to have clear cut influences because then I’ll start tailoring it to that album or that composer, rather than the actual ensemble and musicians who are going to be playing my music. The short answer is yes, there’re obviously tons of influences that I have that make their way into my compositions and influence the band sound, which I would also add is made up of the individual influences that each musician in the group is bringing. But in terms of specific double drum ensembles or specific composers, I couldn’t really pinpoint that.

A lot of it isn’t even other bands or other composers. I’m composing from a visual standpoint—taking scenes and writing a soundtrack to them. So it’s about creating a mood and a vibe that I feel works for those scenes, just using those scenes as a jump-off point for myself to write music but not wanting to express exactly what those are to the audience or to the band.

TJG: For fear of over-determining them?

TF: Yeah, but I also want it to be a little more ambiguous, and more personal in a way. And what I mean by personal is that I want each listener to take from it their own reaction. I feel like, sometimes, if you say, for example, this piece is influenced by this song, this band, or this composer, or, when I wrote this song I was thinking about this time in my life or this person—that puts a pretty significant stamp on that piece, and for the listener. And I think sometimes that can be cool, and sometimes people like that because they can see how they connect the song they’re hearing to whatever was explained to them. But I really love those moments where the listener interprets what they’re hearing and what they’re experiencing and relates its to their own personal thing, whether it be a mood or a memory or an idea that’s of their own creation. So I really try to encourage that in terms of writing music and allowing for the listener to have their own experience with it. And I know some people want to be told and guided a little more, and I can understand and respect that. But what I’m trying to do is create, from a personal standpoint, but allow each individual to take their own impression from it.

TJG: That’s definitely the difficult thing, I find, with conducting these interviews. One on hand, wanting to pick up on specific things, and trying to get at the reasoning behind them, but on the other hand, wanting to get at context.

TF: It’s a tough balance, especially if people are going to check out something new for them—there’s a sense that people want to have a little bit of background, or a little bit of an entry point. And I understand that, even if I’m not really that way myself. For instance, I had a friend who was an actor and we would go to a lot of plays. I didn’t even realize how automatic it was: you walk into the theatre, and they hand you a program. Everyone is sitting there, reading the names of the actors, their bios, the whole thing. Before they’ve even experienced this piece of art they know when the intermission is, how long the play is [laughs], who did the costumes, and they haven’t even started engaging with the thing they’ve come there to check out. And so I would go with my friend, and they would hand him the program and we would sit down, and he would just hold the program in his lap and just sit there and wait. Then we’d see the performance—and after the fact, sure, if you really loved a particular actor and wanted to see what else they were involved with, or the set design was really unique, then after the fact, there was this investigation of how it all worked and how it all came together. But he would really experience this piece of art with a total beginner’s mind and just allow himself to not know anything about what was about to happen, and really just sit with that experience as it was happening. And I love to do that too, with music and other things, so I try to create from that perspective of wanting to make something to engage the listener but also invite them to have their own experience with it. Even if it’s a negative experience! Because I think that’s valid too, and if they have a reaction, that can reveal a lot and be an interesting thing on its own.

TJG: A negative reaction is still an aesthetic experience!

TF: Definitely. And some of my best experiences with art have been, y’know, kind of these strong negative reactions—but they’ve been very informative, and made me really question things, why I had the reaction I did. It helps you understand your sense of aesthetics and what is important to you in terms of the art that you interact with. And you really need to have the full range of experiences with art to get a sense of, not so much what you like and what you don’t like, but why you like and don’t like it, why certain things work and others don’t, and why certain things resonate with you personally.

TJG: To ask a final, song-specific question, what is the recording that runs through and bookends “For Alan?”

TF: Alan Dawson was my teacher for 8 years when I was a kid, which was an incredible, incredible experience. You would record your lessons on these cassette tapes, either him explaining an exercise or demonstrating something. I have all of these cassette tapes that I was going through and wanting to digitize and preserve, and so the recordings on “For Alan” are just little excerpts of my lessons with him. That’s his voice and my voice—I think I’m about 9 or 10 years old on those tapes.

He was such an amazing person in my life, not just as a teacher but as a role model and someone I got to spend a lot of time with and, in some ways, spend a lot of time with in a very innocent way. At the time, I didn’t fully understand the impact that he had had on the music and how big a presence he was and is on this music that I love so much. I didn’t approach it where he had this aura. I just approached it as, my teacher and this great man, and someone who taught me how to play drums, and had so much information to give – information that I’m still working on today when I practice.

I found these little excerpts of our candid moments, my inexperienced questions, and how he would explain things, with some humor in there. But he never treated me like some kid—he always treated me as one of his students and as someone that was serious about learning. And at the time, you don’t really realize it, but then looking back, it’s pretty amazing, y’know, how great he was with me at such a young age and what a great teacher he was. I mean, this is the guy that taught Tony Williams on down to—[laughs] you know, everyone. And played with everyone. He had no airs about him, and took me very seriously as a human being and as a student that was eager to learn.

He just had this little two-speaker tape player that sat on the shelf, right by the drum pads, behind the drum set. You would end every lesson by playing a duet with him—he was a great vibraphone player—and that’s how you’d learn repertoire, song form, how to keep the form, how to trade, how to solo. I think a lot of those excerpts are him hitting record on his way to the vibes and me having a question about this, a question about that. I think the solo thing—I never knew what to do when we were trading, so in one of them, I’m asking, am I going to have to solo on this? And him being like, hey, if this was a gig, it’s not like everything is laid out for you. Like, okay, you have a solo here, and then we’ll trade here. You just have to be ready. And that was another thing, too—he didn’t over-explain anything. He’d just keep leaving spaces for me to solo.

On the album, I knew I wanted to do a duet with Gerald, and “For Alan” is totally improvised, done in one take. As I was mixing I was independently starting to digitize and go through some of these tapes I had of my lessons with Alan. It just made sense to include some bits of the tapes in my duet with Gerald and I think it worked really well. And it’s funny, because there’s no editing done on the duet to make the excerpts fit—it’s almost like we were playing the duet in the studio subconsciously knowing that these little spaces would happen for the tape. I feel like it happened really naturally, and made sense to have traces of, certainly, one of the most important people in my life—not just as a musician, but as a role model and example of a human being to look up to and aspire to.

Tomas Fujiwara and Triple Double play The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, August 11, 2018. The group features Mr. Fujiwara and Gerald Cleaver on drums, Brandon Seabrook and Mary Halvorson on guitars, Ralph Alessi on trumpet, and Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. FREE for SummerPass holders. Purchase tickets here.