Recently, we caught up with one of the better drummers of the modern Jazz era, Tomas Fujiwara, a man who, along with a precious few others, is keeping the heart and soul of thunderous Jazz drumming alive in the hallowed image of greats such as Max Roach, Elvin Jones, and Jimmy Cobb.
Among other things, Tomas and contributor, Andrew Daly, touch on Tomas’s introduction to the drums, his early career on the Jazz scene, the formation of the Triple Double Sextet, the group’s newest music in the form of a new single, “Pack Up, Coming For You,” and a new album, “March,” Tomas’s enduring love for the playing of Max Roach, and a whole lot more.
If you would like to learn more about Tomas Fujiwara, and his many musical endeavors, be sure to head over to his webpage, and his socials to keep up with his latest comings, and goings.
Tomas, as a young musician, what first gravitated you toward the drums?
Growing up in the Cambridge (Massachusetts) Public School system — please support arts programs in public schools! — I was fortunate enough to hear the great drummer and teacher, Keith Gibson, give a snare drum demonstration at a school assembly during my second-grade year. I was immediately captivated by and curious about the sounds he was producing and wanted to learn how to do just that. Additionally, 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 cool cover photo of Max Roach and Buddy Rich sitting at their drum sets in playful dueling poses. I put the record on and was mesmerized by Max Roach’s playing, especially his hihat solo breaks.
What were some of your early gigs where you cut your teeth, so to speak?
I was very fortunate to be a part of the Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School Jazz Ensemble under the direction of Robert Ponte at a time when a number of the other students in the group were very serious about music. Bob was very proactive in finding performance opportunities for us, even taking us to the UK for a tour, and so, we were able to do a lot of learning on the bandstand, through performance, trial, and error, etc. Moving to New York at the age of seventeen, I was immediately able to experience a number of performance opportunities, with peers and elders, that very much accelerated my learning process. Getting to hear, learn from, and play with a number of the great heroes and innovators of the music I love so much, and drawing inspiration from them was an invaluable experience.
Take us through the formation of the Triple Double Sextet.
I had done some gigs and a recording with a new trio of mine with Ralph Alessi and Brandon Seabrook and wanted to continue that, while also expanding the ensemble to accommodate some of the new music I was writing. I knew I wanted to include Taylor Ho Bynum and Mary Halvorson — the two musicians I’ve worked with the most in the past twenty-plus years — in my new group. I’ve always loved Gerald Cleaver’s playing and had been thinking for a while of a situation where we would get to play together. Triple Double really came about more from a desire to work with these great artists and friends, and less about a preconceived notion of a double trio, triple duo, etc.
Let’s talk about recent events. Tell us about your new single, “Pack Up, Coming For You.”
“Pack Up, Coming For You” is the first song off of Triple Double’s second album, “March,” which will be released on March 4, 2022. In some ways, it’s the clearest representation of one of the concepts I use when writing for the band, which is two separate trios of brass/guitar/drums at times mirroring each other, and at other times coming together as a double trio.
From a songwriting perspective, how have you evolved to this point? What’s changed from your younger years?
When you’re in it every day, it’s hard to see and notice specific changes about yourself. Everything happens pretty gradually, as you learn more, as you experience more, but it can be challenging for me to name specific differences about myself, my writing, my playing, etc. from one period to the next. One thing I will say, which may be a common thing for a lot of people, is that I’m much more comfortable with a less-is-more approach to writing, and with allowing and trusting the musicians I play with to interpret my compositions and put their own personal take on things now than maybe I was in the past. When you’re younger, there can often be a feeling of wanting to prove that you can compose, that making sure everything happens a certain way shows that you know what you’re doing, especially as a drummer, because drummers are, generally speaking, the most disrespected instrumentalists when it comes to composition. But as time goes by, I care about that less and less and feel a need to control the process less and less, and trust that what I write is good enough, and trust that the musicians I choose to play with will do beautiful things with my compositions.
Did you self-produce “March,” or did you bring in outside voices?
In a way, even though it may sound a bit contradictory, both. I’m very much making the final decisions on how things go with the album, but I also feel like it’s very collaborative in a lot of ways. I want the other five musicians to be creatively free to play how they want to play, interpret the compositions, and most of all, improvise without restrictions. Nick Lloyd, who runs Firehouse 12 Records, also engineered, mixed, and mastered the album, and I feel like, in many ways, he was the seventh member of the band, adding a lot of detail and clarity to the music. We communicated a lot throughout the process, and I feel like his connection to and involvement with the music is very much a part of what this album is.
Family, friends, conversation, humor, other people’s music, books, films, dance, food, travel, basketball, fashion, photography. I’m positive that all of this stuff informs my music, but it’s mostly in subtle ways that I probably can’t even pinpoint myself. I do like to dedicate songs to important people in my life, whether I know, knew, don’t know, or never knew them personally, and I’m also a pretty visual composer in that I’ll often think of writing a soundtrack loosely based on a personal experience.
What sort of gear are you using in the studio vs. the live setting?
Most of the studios where I record have nice drums, so I’m usually using something they have there. On tour, I have a drum rider that the venue is hopefully following or at least referencing in order to get me something decent that I feel comfortable playing. For the most part, there aren’t any real problems, though once in a while you get something unpleasant to play, so I do my best and try to use it as a creative challenge. I usually record and travel with my own cymbals, and will switch it up a bit depending on the music I’m playing. I often tell my students that one of the skills that’s important to develop as a drummer is a certain ability/level of comfort playing different instruments and setups.
If you could have a drum battle with any artist, past or present, who would it be, and why?
It’s a very long list, but I know that’s a cop-out answer. My two biggest drum influences are my teacher and mentor, Alan Dawson, and my first drum hero/inspiration, Max Roach. I was so fortunate to study with Alan for eight years, and during that time, we played duets (him on vibraphone, me on drums) at the end of most lessons. Additionally, we would play together on practice pads, for example, his “Rudimental Ritual” or sight-reading percussion duets. It would’ve been a dream come true to duet with Max Roach.
Last one. What’s next on your docket? What are you looking forward to most in the pos-COVID world?
My favorite thing to do as a musician is to perform live, in front of an audience. I’m hoping for more and more opportunities to do that, and I am looking forward to everything I have coming up. I have a four-night residency at The Stone in Manhattan from March second through the fifth, including a CD release concert with Triple Double on March fourth. We’ll also head to Geneva, Switzerland later in the month for a concert at the AMR Festival. The collective trio, Thumbscrew (with Mary Halvorson and Michael Formanek), is celebrating our tenth anniversary in 2022 with a Fall release (our seventh), performances, and tours in North America, and Europe. I’m also writing new music for my 7 Poets Trio (with Patricia Brennan and Tomeka Reid), and a commission for a new ensemble of mine. Also, I work with ensembles led by Mary Halvorson, Tomeka Reid, Matana Roberts, Amir ElSaffar, Adam O’Farrill, and other great people/artists.