A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Peter Gannushkin, courtesy of the artist.

Photo by Peter Gannushkin, courtesy of the artist.

It’s hard to find a combination of forward-thinking jazz musicians that Tomas Fujiwara hasn’t played with—he’s relentless in his experimentation with sounds, compositions and ensembles. Fujiwara brings a brand new group to The Jazz Gallery this Wednesday and Thursday: a double trio with Ralph Alessi & Taylor Ho Bynum on horns, Mary Halvorson & Brandon Seabrook on guitars, and himself and Gerald Cleaver on drums.

Following this gig, the band will then immediately head into the studio to record their debut album on Firehouse 12 (here’s the Indiegogo campaign). The group includes some of his closest compatriots: he appears with Halvorson in groups like the Hook Up, Thumscrew, and Code Girl; he has a working trio with Alessi and Seabrook; and he shares a duo project with Bynum. But bringing these players together presents a whole other challenge. We talked to him about the upcoming show—here are excerpts from that interview.

The Jazz Gallery: The phrase ‘double trio’ might be misleading, because it hints at two separate entities. Are you writing songs for two trios, or one six person group?

Tomas Fujiwara: More as six voices and six distinct musical personalities. I like the fact that while each instrument is doubled, the approach to those instruments couldn’t be more different. I really have each player’s sound in my head very clearly. So when I write I can really hear how each one will play a particular piece of a composition. I’ve been trying to think about and utilize all the solo, duo, trio, quartet, options in an orchestrational and improvisational way.

TJG: So for instance, did you write two guitar parts, or one part specifically for Brandon and one for Mary?

TF: I wrote specific parts for everyone. There will be a lot of multiple ensembles happening. Maybe a duo is playing one section while a trio is playing another—and the sixth person is improvising.

TJG: Can you give me an example of how you play to a certain musician’s strength?  

TF: It’s not only their strengths; it’s also trying to challenge them. There might be things that sound very Brandon, and there might be other things I give him that may not. I want to see how he deals with that. I definitely don’t want to give anyone the role of just “this person.”

TJG: How much have you played alongside other drummers, and what have you learned from those experiences?

TF: I’ve done it a few times: in Living By Lanterns with Mike Reed; with Jim Black; and in a large ensemble piece with Joshua Abrams. I learned that if the other drummer is good and open and creative and into the idea of playing together, it’s always going to be a lot of fun. I haven’t experienced any challenges in terms of conflicting approaches or aesthetic dogma or time.

TJG: What have you learned from Gerald Cleaver over the years, and what do you expect will happen when you square off against him in the group?  

TF: Gerald always inspires me every time I hear him, in any context. He has an approach that, aside from being a great drummer, he is really in the moment when he plays and really actively listening and engaged—it’s almost like watching a magician. He creates so many moods and contrasts and colors. He’s of the most patient musicians I’ve ever heard.

Aside from some of the specific things I’m composing for the drums in these various pieces, it’s more just a mood and energy that I’m really excited about. I don’t have any preconceived expectations for exactly what we’re gonna sound like together: it’s just someone you’re really excited to have a conversation with. I don’t know what we’re gonna talk about, but I know I’m gonna be really present with it and enjoy the process and know I’m having a conversation with a master.

TJG: As we wind down to the end of the year, what have been some of your favorite shows of 2016?

TF: Henry Threadgill at the Village Vanguard. Mary Halvorson Solo at City of Asylum in Pittsburgh. John Zorn Composer Portraits at the Miller Theatre. Marcus Gilmore at the Jazz Gallery.

TJG: It feels as though you, along with Mary, Taylor, Michael Formanek, and many others, have formed a sort of vanguard of modern, progressive jazz. Does your work feel very specific to this era?

TF: No, I don’t really have that kind of self-grandiose view. For me it’s about making a personal statement and working towards improving myself as an artist, drummer, composer, collaborator. I’m not trying to create a particular image or name or genre. I want to have the flexibility to go outside whatever someone might pinpoint me as.

TJG: Does the current political climate affect your playing or songwriting?

TF: I’m sure. Everything does. I come to the music with my feelings and thoughts and emotions, but I don’t want to be too overt in how I present them to the audience. I want the audience to take something personal away from it themselves. If they take something political from it, that’s great. If they see a landscape, that’s great as well. The current state of politics and this recent election—they can’t not affect my approach to art.

The Tomas Fujiwara Double Trio performs at The Jazz Gallery on Wednesday, November 30th, and Thursday, December 1st, 2016. The group features Mr. Fujiwara and Gerald Cleaver on drums, Ralph Alessi and Taylor Ho Bynum on trumpet/cornet, and Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook on guitars. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. each night. $22 general admission ($12 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.