Musician profile | Tomas Fujiwara, a drummer and composer with a cinematic vision

Tomas Fujiwara performs this Friday at the Fridge with the Hook Up, his experimental quintet. Courtesy Amani Willett

This is the first of four articles, which will run throughout the next two weeks, profiling the headliners in CapitalBop’s D.C. Jazz Loft Series. Tomas Fujiwara & the Hook Up will play the series’ first show on Friday at the Fridge in Capitol Hill.


by Giovanni Russonello
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It was a sweltering evening in August of 1994 when Tomas Fujiwara arrived at the slightly cozy, slightly empty Rainy Days Café in Chelsea. The 17-year-old drummer was about to begin his freshman year of college, and it was just his second day in New York City.

“I don’t think there were that many people there,” Fujiwara said in a recent phone interview, remembering his first gig in the Big Apple. Not that that bothered him: “I was just so focused on playing the music and trying to keep it together.”

Fujiwara has called New York City home ever since, but his focus has moved well beyond trying to keep it together while playing standards; now he’s concerned with painting musical panoramas that peek past their own edges, challenging his comfort zone through composing and collaborating with like-minded experimenters.

He and his quintet, the Hook Up, will play their first D.C. show this Friday at the Fridge art gallery as part of CapitalBop’s D.C. Jazz Loft Series.

The Hook Up’s first album, last year’s Actionspeak, bespeaks Fujiwara’s ambition – both in its comfort with the unfamiliar and its sweeping musical vision. It takes a few listens to digest the vast and lush landscapes formed by each of the record’s seven original tunes.

“Should I Do,” Tomas Fujiwara & the Hook Up (Actionspeak) [audio:https://www.capitalbop.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/02-Should-I-Do.mp3|titles=”Should I Do,” Tomas Fujiwara & the Hook Up]

As a performer, Fujiwara is guided by two separate legacies. Growing up in Boston but spending summers with his father’s family in Japan, he was immersed both in his hometown’s tradition of phenomenal jazz drummers and in the Buddhist philosophy of his grandfather, a Japanese priest.

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At the age of seven, Fujiwara dug up one of the only jazz albums in his parents’ collection, Rich Versus Roach, and put it on. He was captivated by the drum battle between Buddy Rich and Max Roach, whose spectacular flights on the hi-hat left him especially struck. “Hearing all the sounds they were getting out of their drum sets” turned him on immediately, he said.

Fujiwara started taking lessons with a local drummer, Joyce Kauffman, but when she moved out to the West Coast, he auditioned to begin studying with Alan Dawson, the local legend who had performed and recorded with Jaki Byard, Illinois Jacquet, Dave Brubeck and Sonny Stitt. “He just wanted to make sure I wasn’t a kid bouncing off the walls,” Fujiwara said of the audition, musing. “I’ve been told that before me, his youngest student was Tony Williams.” Fujiwara ended up taking lessons with Dawson from age of 10 to the time he left for New York.

From Dawson, he acquired a rigorous practicing regimen. His teacher “had a real order of exercises that he’d go through, and he had a real system for developing skills,” Fujiwara recalled.

Among Dawson’s demands was that Fujiwara sing the melodies of the tunes he learned. “You play more musically if you know the song form, as opposed to just counting bar lines,” Fujiwara said. “So he would have me sing the song while I was playing, so that way you wouldn’t play anything that didn’t complement, accentuate and outline the song.”

Tomas Fujiwara. Courtesy Amani Willett

The lesson shows through in Fujiwara’s writing – some of which he does at the drum set, singing melodies as he comes up with them. “I definitely compose pieces and songs that are exactly that: songs in and of themselves,” Fujiwara said. The trajectory of each of his tunes takes precedence, and Fujiwara is usually after some specific sort of cinematic ebb and flow. Some of the tracks on Actionspeak are divided into two movements, and every solo, like its own scene, moves the tune’s plot forward.

And yet, his compositional frameworks leave lots of room for the individual parts to move around. “I’m not trying to compose to hold anyone back from improvising; if anything, I’m trying to compose to inspire people to improvise.”

That’s why when he put together the Hook Up, Fujiwara went looking not for a particular instrumentation, but for musicians in whom he felt he could vest total confidence. “The musicians were really selected based on their musical personalities first, and secondly what instruments they played,” he said.

The Hook Up’s lineup reads like a laundry list of the up-and-coming musicians often found playing in spots like Smalls Jazz Club and Cornelia Street Café, Lower Manhattan’s breeding grounds for jazz innovation: trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson (who plays with Steve Coleman and Steve Lehman), guitarist Mary Halvorson (a favorite student-turned-collaborator of Anthony Braxton) and bassist Danton Boller (an accomplice of Roy Hargrove). Fujiwara, too, has long been an in-demand sideman throughout the city, playing regularly in groups like Ideal Bread and Matana Roberts’ Coin Coin.

Then there’s Brian Settles, who’s a distinctive and consummate tenor saxophonist but lives in D.C. Fujiwara has been friends with Settles ever since they met – on Fujiwara’s very first New York gig, at the Rainy Days Café. The two wound up going to college together, and became close friends.

“He literally was the first musician I met in New York,” Fujiwara said. “We played a lot together, we hung out a lot together, we spent a lot of time together in our very formative times in our lives – late teens and early 20s … really coming into our own, trying to figure out where we fit in as individuals playing music.”

Settles, who grew up in D.C. and went to high school at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, relocated to his hometown after college and has since become a fixture of the jazz scene here. But Fujiwara was willing – eager, even – to ignore the geographical divide. “When I was putting together this group I knew that I wanted to play with him,” the drummer said. “At the time I put together the group it had been quite a long time since we’d played together.”

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On Actionspeak, the focus is clearly on the compositions and the ensemble’s collage – Fujiwara’s playing rumbles and crashes with exacting precision, but he guides the group without ego. He plays as if throwing colors onto the backside of a canvas, letting them seep through only slightly to the other side. Through it all, Fujiwara emits a sense of zenlike concentration, but there’s something in the music that seems rightfully amiss, entropic. That feeling of mercurial disturbance is augmented by Settles’ quavering, eerie repetitions and Halvorson’s off-kilter attack, like that of a busted machine.

In composing and performing, Fujiwara says, “I’m accepting each moment as part of a bigger process ­­– that each time I play it’s part of a process and it doesn’t need to be its own complete moment.”

Although he is hesitant to cite any concrete examples, Fujiwara acknowledges that the spirituality he observed in his grandfather while spending summers in Japan as a boy had a major impact. “To be honest, I’m still trying to figure that out,” he said. “My grandfather passed away last summer, and it was one of those experiences where you know somebody has been a big influence on your life,” but the specific mark they’ve left is hard to pinpoint.

“As a boy and a young man, [I remember] looking up to him and seeing a model of a man that I would aspire to. The way he carried himself, the way he treated others; he had an honest and peaceful energy about himself.”

Similarly, Fujiwara doesn’t like to say much about his compositions, or what he intends to get across with each of them. “When I play a piece, sometimes people will say, ‘Oh, what was that about?’ And I’ll say, ‘I’d like to hear what you got out of it first,’” he explained.

But there’s one goal he does apply to all his writing. “I definitely compose, across the board, with a visual element in mind,” he said. “It’s not that I want it to invoke an image that everybody’s going to see, it’s that if it invokes an image for me it will also communicate with the listener.”

That visual element is particularly apparent in his compositions for the Hook Up, but also in those that he writes for the four-piece collective Thirteenth Assembly, and for his duo with Taylor Ho Bynum, a trumpeter whom he has known since high school. In the duo, which released its well-received sophomore album last year, Bynum and Fujiwara are “really trying to deliberately pull the rug out from each other, react and see where that takes us,” the drummer said.

There is more framework to the music he makes with the Hook Up, but Fujiwara aims for a similar sense of structured abandon. The band is set to record its second album, featuring a collection of tunes that Fujiwara wrote specifically with the band’s five members in mind.

He’ll arrive on Friday with an altered version of the group  – Matt Moran on vibraphone subbing in for Halvorson, and the bassist Trevor Dunn for Boller – throwing a curveball for this ensemble. But he’s always open to an added challenge: “For me, it’s always interesting to play this music with other people,” he said. “I don’t do that reluctantly, because I think it’s always great to experiment with other musicians.”

Tomas Fujiwara & the Hook Up play at the Fridge on Friday night, with the Brian Settles Trio opening. The show starts at 9 p.m. and is the first of four in CapitalBop’s D.C. Jazz Loft Series at the DC Jazz Fest.

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