Tomas Fujiwara: Interview

by Troy Collins

Tomas Fujiwara, © 2022 Amy Touchette

Brooklyn-based drummer and composer Tomas Fujiwara was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts. In his youth, Fujiwara studied for eight years with legendary drummer and educator Alan Dawson before moving to New York at the age of 17. Now a ubiquitous presence in the New York scene, Fujiwara leads several ensembles, such as Tomas Fujiwara’s Triple Double (with Gerald Cleaver, Mary Halvorson, Brandon Seabrook, Ralph Alessi, and Taylor Ho Bynum), Tomas Fujiwara & The Hook Up (with Jonathan Finlayson, Brian Settles, Halvorson, and Michael Formanek), and most recently, Tomas Fujiwara’s 7 Poets Trio (with Patricia Brennan and Tomeka Reid). His collaborative efforts include a long-running duo with Bynum and the collective trio Thumbscrew (with Halvorson and Formanek).

He is also a member of ensembles led by forward thinking peers like Bynum, Halvorson, Matana Roberts, Nicole Mitchell, and Tomeka Reid, in addition to working with artists such as Anthony Braxton, John Zorn, Ben Goldberg, Amir ElSaffar, and Benoit Delbecq. He has also worked as a composer for theatre, film, and dance, as a teacher and clinician, and has had many experiences outside of jazz, including a five-year stint with the Off Broadway show Stomp and performances with the Tony Award winning Broadway musical Fela! In 2021, he won the Downbeat Critics Poll for Rising Star Drummer, and premiered two suites of new music as part of his Roulette Residency: You Don’t Have to Try (with Meshell Ndegeocello); and Shizuko, a suite dedicated to his grandmother, featuring Bynum, Reid, Rafiq Bhatia, and Davi Vieira.

Fujiwara has developed a particularly strong collaborative relationship with Bynum and Halvorson, who have played together in myriad configurations, including Bynum’s Sextet, Thirteenth Assembly, and Living by Lanterns. Fujiwara first assembled his Hook Up quintet in 2008, and Triple Double in 2017, initially basing the unconventional sextet around a working trio with Alessi and Seabrook. Aptly titled, Triple Double’s lineup of two drummers, two guitarists, and two brass (cornet and trumpet) is no more unorthodox in format than his latest foray, 7 Poets Trio, which premiered in 2019 with vibraphonist Patricia Brennan and cellist Tomeka Reid. I interviewed Fujiwara during the early spring of 2022, concurrent with the release of March, by Triple Double.


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Troy Collins: Some early biographical information might be of interest to readers unfamiliar with your background. How did you get your start playing music?

Tomas Fujiwara: Growing up in the Cambridge (Massachusetts) Public School system, I was lucky to hear the great drummer and teacher Keith Gibson give a snare drum demonstration at a school assembly when I was about 7 years old. I was immediately captivated by and curious about the sounds he was producing and wanted to learn how to do what he was doing. Right around that same time in my life, while flipping through a crate of my mother’s records, I came across Rich vs. Roach with its cover photo of Max Roach and Buddy Rich sitting at their drums in playful dueling poses. I put the record on and was mesmerized by Max Roach’s playing, especially his hihat solo breaks. My mom was encouraging and supportive of my interest in music in general, and the drums in particular, and so I started taking lessons with the great musician and teacher, Joyce Kouffman. Joyce is a multi-instrumentalist and composer who introduced me not only to the basics and foundation of drumming, but to making music with others, how different instruments work and function within an ensemble, how to compose, and how to enjoy the creative possibilities of music. Two years later, when I was 9 years old, Joyce moved to the West Coast and recommended me to her teacher, the great Alan Dawson. For the next 8 years I studied with Alan, attended as many of his and his peers’ performances around the Boston area as I could, and, in high school, began playing with my peers as a member of the Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School Jazz Ensemble under the direction of Robert Ponte. Two months after graduating from high school, I moved to New York City to pursue my love of music.

TC: What was it like studying with Dawson? I’ve long been a fan of his and read that he had a more holistic approach towards teaching, than merely focusing on drum technique. I’m curious what your experience was like?

TF: I am thankful each and every day for the experience of studying with Alan for 8 years, for the wisdom and guidance, and for the kindness and mentorship. Alan approached both playing and teaching the drums from the perspective of being a part of an ensemble and serving the music first and foremost. He had excellent knowledge of and exercises for technique, coordination, independence, and dexterity on the drums, but all of this was within a framework of learning (song) forms and structures, and achieving a balanced and musical sound, both individually and within the context of the group. I learned as much about song form, ensemble interplay, and repertoire from him as I did about how to play the drums. I can’t say enough about how great a teacher he was, to say nothing of his legendary and impeccable playing and contribution to the music that we love so much.

TC: A dedication to melodic themes and a reliance on song forms seems to be the common thread that connects your various (and varied) projects. Considering your ability to navigate multiple styles within an array of different ensembles, are there any aspects of the jazz tradition that you currently find inspiring and/or any established practices you find creatively constraining?

TF: I’m constantly seeking out new music of any genre and tradition. Friends will tell you that I often send them a random text for an album recommendation and try check it out without any background information, just trying to absorb the new sounds with an open ear and mind. I find this process very inspiring, even if I don’t immediately connect with the music. I think that experiencing art that doesn’t resonate with you or that you even really dislike, can be very valuable in your development as an artist, because you have to question why you have a strong reaction against something and what that says about what you like and what you want to do with your own art. In a general sense, my composing process has been very much the same for a while – I write from a visual perspective, like writing a soundtrack, and I’ll put parameters to work within at the beginning, eventually breaking the ones I no longer find useful to the process.

TC: I’m curious if any of the recommendations your friends have made to you have ended up surprising you and perhaps inspiring and/or influencing your own writing or playing? If so, can you give a concrete example?

TF: Recently, XXI Century by Gonzalo Rubalcaba (whose music I’ve listened to quite a bit over the years) was recommended to me, and while it’s musicians I’m very familiar with, this album has been a new source of inspiration. Scout Niblett’s Sweet Heart Fever was recommended to me a number of years back, and I went into it with zero prior knowledge. It really resonated with me, and it was helpful at that time, as I was writing music, in reminding me to start with a focused mood and idea and only add to it as necessary. Ben Johnston: “String Quartets Nos. 6, 7 & 8” was also a great recommendation – the writing, the moods, the development, the patience. And one of those recommendations, from probably about 10-15 years ago, which has become a big-time favorite is Amina Claudine Myers’ Salutes Bessie Smith. Incredible. Inspiring.

TC: Other than inspiring you in general, have any of those releases (or any other recent musical discoveries) changed the specific way you write for your own ensembles, or inspired you to perhaps improvise using previously untried strategies?

TF: Not really. I think most of the changes to my way of writing or decisions to try new techniques have come from writing something, bringing it to one of my ensembles, and seeing what I thought worked and what I thought didn’t work. I’ll ask myself if the music came across as I had intended once the musicians played it, and if it didn’t, was that a positive or a negative. I’ll ask myself whether I feel I communicated my intentions clearly to the ensemble, and if not, how I can improve on that, either with verbal or written explanations. I do take note of how other composers and bandleaders I work with organize their compositions, rehearsal process, leadership techniques, etc., and take from that.

TC: I’ve noticed that as a composer, you occasionally rearrange compositions written for one ensemble to be performed by another. Therefore, I’m curious if you begin writing with specific players in mind, or do you embrace a more egalitarian approach, where the tunes are open to interpretation by different groups of players? And regarding such interpretations, how do the personal and/or stylistic dynamics of individual band members shape the inner workings of those groups?

TF: I always compose thinking about a specific ensemble and specific musicians. If I rearrange a piece later for a different group, it’s usually because personnel has changed or because something I wrote for us isn’t getting performed much – either the ensemble is no longer active or we’ve moved on to other material – so I’ll bring it back and rearrange it for another group because I still want to play it. A few of my tunes are pretty flexible in terms of instrumentation and players, but for the most part, they’re pretty specific and don’t always make sense to rearrange – I’d usually prefer to just write something new for a new group/combination. That being said, I want the music I write to allow for the musicians to interpret the material and take a personal approach to it.

Each combination of people is different and has its own dynamics, which often change over time. For the most part, I work with people who are strong individuals who enjoy collaboration, communication, and hard work, and have respect for the people they’re sharing the space and music with, so the dynamics and inner workings can often flow pretty naturally and positively. I will say that what’s worked for me in ensembles with multiple composers, is to have the composer be the de-facto “leader” while rehearsing their pieces, taking suggestions, etc., but ultimately making the final decisions on how their composition will go. The ability to step forward into a leadership role, and step back into a supportive role is, I believe, an important and nuanced skill to have when working with others.

TC: Since you do maintain a number of concurrent ensembles, what advantages and challenges do you find in maintaining so many different groups? In retrospect, the jazz bands of a previous era featured long-term personnel for extended tours, but that has largely changed today, for various reasons, both aesthetic and economic.

TF: The challenge is finding opportunities for all of these ensembles to rehearse, perform, and record, scheduling with busy folks who live in different places, etc. But, if it’s people and music you care about, it’s worth the time and effort, and I’m always thankful for those moments together. I, and I think most musicians, have a number of interests in terms of music I want to explore both from a playing and compositional perspective, so I’m very thankful to get to explore those things with different combinations of musicians at different times. Sometimes a band won’t play for several months, but if there’s history, commitment, and trust, it feels quite natural to come together and pick up where we left off.

TC: Speaking of which, let’s talk about Triple Double. You have stated that “If you’re leading a guitar trio and want to do something personal with it, it can be difficult to get out from under the shadow of all the great guitar trios that came before. With this there isn’t that history, so it takes away expectations. That challenge is fun for me.” And “Not having a blueprint can be challenging, but at the same time it can be quite liberating and inspiring.” Can you elaborate on that last statement?

TF: When I formed Triple Double, one of the things I liked was that I wasn’t sure what the combinations of musicians and instruments would sound like exactly. I knew it was something I wanted to explore, and so I could experiment with composing and arranging with a very open mind and ear and not feel like anything had to fit into a prescribed sound. I will say that when I write for any ensemble, I’m thinking of the specific sound and sonic personality of the musician, not the instrument, so I never thought of “Hurry Home” as a ballad for guitar and drums, but specifically, for our album Triple Double, as a duet between myself and Mary Halvorson, and then between Gerald Cleaver and Brandon Seabrook. In live performance, we’ve done those combinations as well as me/Brandon and Gerald/Mary, and the song, arrangement, pacing, dynamics, etc. are different every time. I, like most composers, have challenges with the process I have to overcome, but thankfully, one of them is not feeling like I need to stick to a specific sonic world, style, historic lineage, etc.

TC: Your vibraphone playing is more prominent on March, and the airy ballad “Life Only Gets More” features a hushed drum solo, which is rare, lending additional tone colors to the proceedings. March also ends much like Triple Double’s debut, with another improvised duet with Cleaver in tribute to Alan Dawson. Was it a conscious choice to add such contrasting selections to an album dominated by mostly visceral electro-acoustic explorations?

TF: Balance is always important to me, so when thinking about music for an album, one of my priorities is to have a variety of moods and dynamics, even extremes at times. “Life Only Gets More” and “Silhouettes in Smoke” were conscious efforts to add more ballad-type moods, sparsity, patience in repetition, etc. On “Life Only Gets More,” my goal was to write a ballad which featured the drums as the main improvising/”solo” voice, because I hear that so rarely – I can’t really think of another recorded example. On “Silhouettes in Smoke,” I wanted the rhythm section (2 drums, 2 guitars, 1 vibraphone) to provide a constant and consistent meditative flow for the melody and cornet improvisation to float over. On “For Alan, Part II,” Gerald and I didn’t say a word before recording, but I suppose there could have been a sense, since it was the last take of the session, that this sort of duet would complement the rest of the compositions and add a unique sound to the overall album.

TC: Can you explain the inspiration behind the album title? Other than being issued in the month of March, the album title also invokes the conceptual idea of marching, in unity (which is further emphasized by the colorful album art) – a hefty metaphor in today’s divisive political climate.

TF: There’s something about marching that is very evocative to me. It’s a coordinated activity that always has a group intent behind it – which could be peaceful, violent, revolutionary, stifling or joyful. Marching can take on so many different forms, but it’s always a group activity for a group cause that represents those intentions or feelings by a show of numbers together in one direction. Oftentimes it’s not about getting from point A to point B, it’s simply the act of marching and of being together that expresses the point.

TC: Despite what sounds like complex arrangements and intricate charts, it seems March was recorded quickly and spontaneously, similar to say, Blue Note’s classic blowing sessions. Can you elaborate on the intentions behind that plan, if it indeed was the case?

TF: My initial plan for this album was to develop the music over the course of a European tour and some U.S. gigs. Realities and logistics made it so we hardly had any opportunities to play the music live with the full lineup prior to the recording session. I’ve always thought about how many of my favorite albums were made – classic Blue Note’s for example – the process, the approach, etc. I decided to challenge myself, thanks in part to some helpful conversations with producer Nick Lloyd, to embrace this process as something I would try, and bring the compositions to the band in the studio, to work through them there and capture the feeling of encountering a composition for the first time, and making honest, in the moment, raw, imperfect, vulnerable music with it. It was exciting to go into it not knowing how it would go, if I would end up with something I wanted to make an album out of, and I love the focus, the intensity, the risk, and the abandon, that I feel and hear from this album.

TC: Speaking of focus, intensity, and risk, I noticed recently that you’re going to be performing with John Zorn’s New Masada Quartet. Have you ever worked with Zorn before, and if so, what is that like?

TF: The great Kenny Wollesen is the drummer with John Zorn’s New Masada, but I’ll be subbing for Kenny at a Benefit for Ukraine Support concert at Roulette in Brooklyn. Other than that, I’ve performed with John a few other times, at the Jazz Em Agosto festival in Lisbon, at Stone benefits throughout the years, etc. It’s always so inspiring playing with him, and he brings such a powerful energy to the music. My main work with him has been performing and recording his compositions as part of the Bagatelles and Book of Angels in an ensemble with Mary Halvorson and Drew Gress. I love playing his compositions, and they strike a perfect balance between specificity and wide open spaces.

TC: That balance between specificity and wide open spaces is what I was curious about; much like the late Butch Morris, Zorn often “conducts” his improvisers. I was wondering what additional challenges improvising while maintaining constant eye contact with a conductor who favors quick time changes presented?

TF: I enjoy it very much. I’m fortunate that the musicians I’ve worked with who conduct, use conduction, hand signals, etc. are very clear with their communication, very creative and open-minded, and have a great deal of respect for their collaborators. People like Anthony Braxton, John Zorn, Matana Roberts, Billy Martin, Taylor Ho Bynum, Greg Tate, and Butch Morris, all of whom I’ve worked with at some point in my life.

TC: In reference to performing, how do you feel about studio recording compared to live performance and how does that affect your playing in each situation?

TF: I love performing live; the in-the-moment interaction with your fellow musicians, the connection to the energy of the audience, and the acoustics of different spaces. I really enjoy studio recording as well, and while I appreciate the options one has in post-production, I tend to lean more towards a recording as capturing a moment in time, rather than something that’s edited and modified after the fact. Of course, that’s a whole creative process too, and there are many great albums that have relied heavily on post-production techniques, but I think for music that involves a lot of improvisation, my preferences lean towards the documentation of that spontaneity, again, in the spirit of some of the classic Blue Note albums, for example. As with everything, I strive to find a balance with things; a balance in my work between live performance and studio recordings, and, once in the studio, a balance between documenting the moment as it was, and utilizing technology and various techniques to make things sound “better,” at least to my ears.

TC: In the same line of thought, what are your thoughts on the state of the recording industry at large, especially regarding archival copies (CDs, vinyl) versus more ephemeral formats (downloads, streaming)?

TF: With each passing day, the recording industry offers musicians less and less of a financial piece of the pie, and less and less rights and protections. Albums still cost money to make, and if one believes that musicians should be compensated for documenting their music, then we’re not headed in the right direction. (Or maybe we’ve already arrived at the wrong destination.) I also feel that artwork and design are a part of an album and that gets lost with downloads and streaming. A lot of important information (personnel, composer information, credits, historical context, etc.) is lost in the streaming era, and so there’s less knowledge ... and less focused listening.

TC: The inevitable question is how have you been handling the pandemic and what projects do you have planned for the immediate future?

TF: I dealt with 2020 into 2021 in three-to-four-month chunks of time, in terms of dealing with the realities, logistics, cancellations, and reschedules, not to mention the emotional and financial effect that everyone faced in different and personal ways.

As a leader, March, the second album by my band Triple Double, came out in March 2022, and I’d like to bring that ensemble and those compositions to as many ears as possible in a live setting, in addition to hoping that people will check out the album. (And by check out, I mean BUY, as this relates to the above question.) I’ve been working on solo music for acoustic drum set, with more focus on it in the past two years. I’m planning to record another album with my 7 Poets Trio (with Patricia Brennan and Tomeka Reid) and get that group out on the road. I have a commission for a performance by a new ensemble of mine in early 2023, so I’ve begun composing that music. As a collaborator, Thumbscrew (with Mary Halvorson and Michael Formanek) is celebrating its 10-year anniversary in 2022, with a bunch of touring in North America and Europe, and our seventh release, Multicolored Midnight, out in the Fall. Illegal Crowns (with Benoit Delbecq, Taylor Ho Bynum, and Mary Halvorson) will tour the U.S. in June, and record our third album. And as a sideman, I have performances and recordings with John Zorn, Tomeka Reid, Mary Halvorson, Adam O’Farrill, Matana Roberts, Amir ElSaffar, and Ned Rothenberg, all of which I’m very excited about and looking forward to. I am beyond thankful to be able to collaborate with so many incredible and inspiring artists who are also great human beings and friends.


© 2022 Troy Collins

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