Tomas Fujiwara’s Triple Double
Tomas Fujiwara’s Triple Double at
TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival
Tomas Fujiwara is a Brooklyn-based drummer and composer who has been described as “a ubiquitous presence in the New York scene…an artist whose urbane writing is equal to his impressively nuanced drumming” (Troy Collins, Point of Departure). An active player in some of the most exciting music of the current generation, with his bands Triple Double, The Hook Up, The Tomas Fujiwara Trio, Thumbscrew and more, Fujiwara takes jazz to an exciting, upredictable place. Nate Chinen writes in The New York Times, “Fujiwara works with rhythm as a pliable substance, solid but ever shifting. His style is forward-driving but rarely blunt or aggressive, and never random. He has a way of spreading out the center of a pulse while setting up a rigorous scaffolding of restraint…A conception of the drum set as a full-canvas instrument, almost orchestral in its scope.”
I spoke to Tomas Fujiwara by email.
The Bulletin Interview | Tomas Fujiwara
Your website lists a dizzying number of projects that you’re involved with – which either indicates a restless spirit, or maybe just the reality of trying to make a living playing music in these times – or maybe both. For your appearance at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival you’re bringing Triple Double – two drummers, two guitarists and two brass players. That’s a fairly unusual lineup – particularly the double drums. What drew you to that particular combination?
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 performances 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 lineup of my quintet, The 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 not the usual cast of characters I might be playing with often 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.
How would you describe the music you make with Triple Double to someone who doesn’t have access to the music to hear for themselves? I’m listening to it and enjoying it very much, but don’t have the vocabulary to describe it.
Actually, I would try to describe it as little as possible. I think it’s unfortunate that so many people feel a need to know how to categorize and name (segregate) something, know what it is and isn’t, what’s it’s trying to do, who’s doing it, etc. before experiencing it. The narrative backstory has become far more important that the art itself and I think that’s a real shame. To me there’s nothing more exciting than going into something without any preconceived idea and experiencing it with as much of an open and beginner’s mind as possible. What’s the worst thing that happens if you come to this concert, or any concert, film, exhibition, dance performance, etc. etc. and think it’s awful? An hour of your time? An opportunity to see what it is you didn’t like, what emotions or thoughts it evoked, what it is you do like and why? And that’s the worst case scenario, which actually doesn’t sound all that bad! So I would just say if you’re curious, check it out, ideally live, because I think that’s the best way to experience music if possible, and see what you think and how you feel. And the music is available online, so give it a listen and see how you feel. I will say, I promise it won’t kill you! Ha ha!
Your bio says that you studied with drummer/teacher Alan Dawson for eight years before moving to New York at the age of 17. Does this mean you started drumming at age nine? How does one end up studying with someone like that as such a young age?
I started taking private lessons with Joyce Kouffman around the age of seven. She was an incredible teacher and introduced me not only to the drums, but to other instruments and how they worked and functioned. She was creative and positive, not to mention an excellent drummer and teacher. When she moved to the West Coast, my mother asked her to recommend a teacher and Joyce, who had been studying with Alan, said she’d ask him if he’d be willing to take on such a young student. I went in for my first lesson and that became eight years of studying with him. I was in no way prodigious or particularly exceptional at that age, but I was focused and respectful and I think the main thing that Alan wanted to see was that he wasn’t going to have to be a babysitter and that I was going to do the work and put in the time.
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.
What was the first music you remember hearing, what was the first music that made you sit up and say, I want to play the drums?
The first music that made me want to play the drums was a record in my mother’s record crate called Rich vs. Roach, an old school “drum battle” record by Max Roach and Buddy Rich. What drew me to it was the cover photo – it’s odd to think I never would’ve checked it out in today’s era of streaming and downloads because album covers and designs are often ignored or, at most, experienced in passing on a phone screen. I was intrigued by the shining drums and cymbals, the stylish and cool men, and the serious but slightly playful poses. I put it on and my immediate thought was, “I have to figure out what they’re doing!” Max Roach’s playing on the hihat cymbals mesmerized me. He was my first favorite drummer and I checked out everything he was on. Also, the great drummer Keith Gibson who, at the time I was in grade school, was the drum teacher for all of the Cambridge public schools, gave a demonstration of a single stroke roll on the snare drum during a school assembly, and I thought it was the most powerful sound I had ever heard. I came home from school and said, “Mom, I want to play the drums!”
You appeared in Stomp on Broadway for five years, as well the musical Fela! with Patti Labelle – not a typical journey for a jazz musician. Did those experiences influence how you approach your music in any way?
Certainly. Everything does, really. Specifically, Stomp, in a lot of instances, was like playing in an eight-person percussion ensemble. I learned a lot about ensemble interaction, listening and blending, and making choices about when to support and when to step forward. The cast included artists with a wide variety of skills and talents and so I learned a lot and was very inspired by the people I met through the show. It was also some of my earliest and most extensive touring, which was very formative.
I was the drum set sub for Fela! on Broadway, and through that experience I was able to really dig in to the music of Fela Kuti – and the beats of Tony Allen! – with a phenomenal and tight band. Also, getting to play music in support of amazing dancers, choreographed by the legendary Bill T. Jones, was very inspiring. The connection of music and movement is very important to me. Patti LaBelle is a force and a master of her craft. Getting to play and rehearse with her was a cherished experience and – not to over-use the word – very inspiring.
From your photo, I’m guessing you’re part Japanese – you look somewhat like me. Were you brought up with the culture in any way? Do you identify yourself as Japanese American?
My father is Japanese and my mother is French. I was born and raised in the United States – the first member of my family on either side to be born in the U.S. I’ve spent a lot of time in Japan, as well as France and Europe in general. My stepfather is Iranian. I’ve lived in Boston and New York City my entire life, aside for about seven months in Biloxi, Mississippi. All of these things, and so much more, make up who I am and contribute to my sense of self. I know my history and where I come from, and at the same time don’t want to be limited or boxed in by parameters or labels. I love being Japanese and spending time in Japan, especially with my grandparents, who were both an influential presence in my life.
I’m listening to your piece “For Alan” as I write this, and there’s the voice of small boy underneath the drums. It’s quite lovely – can you tell me about what’s going on there?
Alan’s students would record their lessons on 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 nine or ten years old on those tapes.
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…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 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 his answer was basically, if this were a gig, it’s not like everything is laid out for you. 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.
I compose music for taiko drums – but it’s purely percussion-based. I’ve always wondered about composing as a drummer for other instruments – you’re clearly thinking melodically as well as rhythmically. Are you composing melodies in your head, writing it out, or do you compose on an instrument like piano?
(I love taiko!) Kind of all of the above. I compose in my head, jot things down, and firm up the ideas when I have time at an instrument. I often compose from the drumset – you can get a lot of melodic and harmonic ideas from the drums. I also use the piano, vibraphone, and computer to flesh things out and to figure out which instruments will play what, voicings, range, etc. etc.
What are you looking for when you compose? Is there any kind of unifying theory or approach you take to composing? Is there an emotional resonance you’re searching for? Intellectual? Spiritual?
I often find that if I’m looking for something when I compose, I usually don’t find it. Ha ha! What I mean by that is that I try to just let ideas flow, or, often times, not flow, in as much a natural way as possible. I keep putting down ideas for a while and only much later begin to organize, edit, etc. I’m a very visual composer, so I often have an image or scene in mind, and it’s as if I’m writing a soundtrack—something else I’d like to get into at some point. I always write for specific musicians, so I have their sounds in mind as well when I compose. I believe the intellectual and spiritual take care of themselves if you’re being honest and curious, working at it, and not taking yourself too seriously.
Connected to that, I suppose, is how do you select your bandmates? Is there a characteristic you’re looking for? I notice that some of the same musicians appear in many of your projects.
The main thing I’m looking for is a personal sound and approach to music making. Aside from that, I’m not really looking for specific technical or stylistic things. I’m also looking for bandmates whom I enjoy being around, working with, and sharing an important part of my life with. And also a sense of professionalism and respect. There are enough excellent musicians in the world that you don’t have to deal with b.s. or disrespect. Seems pretty obvious, but it took me a minute to figure that one out. If you look at the people in Triple Double, they are among my favorite artists in the world, they are among my favorite people in the world, and I have a lot of love and respect for each and every one of them.
I have to ask. In Canada at Tim Hortons Donuts, the classic coffee order is a Double Double – two creams and two sugars. Is there any connection?
Ha! I actually did another project, which I’d love to do again, called Double Double with myself and Kendrick Scott on drums and Mary Halvorson and Bill Frisell on guitars. Maybe Tim Horton’s would like to make us their official band?! I’m open to it if you’d like to put us in touch. Ha ha!
Tomas Fujiwara’s Triple Double
Saturday, June 29
The Ironworks • 12midnight
Tomas Fujiwara – Drums
Gerald Cleaver – Drums
Mary Halvorson – Guitar
Brandon Seabrook – Guitar
Ralph Alessi – Trumpet
Taylor Ho Bynum – Cornet
Saturday, June 29, 3pm
Roundhouse – The Studio