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Tomas Fujiwara’s scintillating new record, March (Firehouse 12), is in part a reflection of the effects of time. For starters, there’s how the gap since the first record with his band Triple Double affected the drummer’s development as a leader and composer. While the group’s 2017 debut was a strong document of six highly creative improvisers interacting in a unique format, the new record pushes the envelope even further.
“I definitely write with a player’s sound in my mind, and I try to write to that sound and those strengths,” the Brooklyn-based Fujiwara says during a December phone interview. “But almost equally, I try to write in a way that I feel will push people a little bit out of their comfort zones. All the musicians in this group are true improvisers, and I love to hear what they do when they’re not 100 percent comfortable. What I like is that while everyone has a different approach and a different style, it’s a group of really open and curious musicians. Each of us is listening for something different from what we do, and we’re inspired by that.”
True improvisers indeed. The band’s name, which puns on a coveted basketball statistic, refers to the twinned trios that constitute the ensemble — one featuring Fujiwara on drums, guitarist Mary Halvorson and Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet; the other with drummer Gerald Cleaver, guitarist Brandon Seabrook and trumpeter Ralph Alessi. Before the first record, the band rehearsed Fujiwara’s compositions prior to heading into the studio. Now, with the six musicians — many of whom had worked together for years — having established themselves as an ensemble, Fujiwara decided to introduce an element borrowed from some of his favorite classic jazz albums.
“We just worked through the music in the studio and captured those first impressions of the music, those first takes — that kind of visceral and intense connection to new music that I think can be really cool,” he says. “I’ve always thought about how much we revere some of these classic recordings. And there are recordings that people try to emulate in various ways, but a lot of times the process isn’t emulated. I kind of enjoyed putting my money where my mouth was and being like, ‘I’m gonna bring in this music and we’re gonna play through it and it’s going to be recorded.’”
Fujiwara also focused on exploring different combinations among the musicians as a way to push the music forward. “Docile Fury Ballad,” for example, includes a section featuring Seabrook and Bynum, as well as one with Halvorson improvising over the dual drumming of Fujiwara and Cleaver. The varied compositional moods and textures also highlight Fujiwara’s evolution as a composer. He plays vibraphone on the moody ballad “Silhouettes in Smoke,” an instrument that he says has helped expand his palette.
“I’ve been playing them much more and composing from the vibes much more, and I think that’s opened up my ears in other ways,” Fujiwara says. “The way it gets into my ear and the way it gets into my compositional process is just, for whatever reason, way more inspiring.”
Time was also a factor in the album’s gestation. The recording took place in December 2019, while postproduction work occurred amid the subsequent backdrop of the pandemic lockdown, racial justice protests and the run-up to the presidential election. As Fujiwara notes, “The music has been alive during very different intense periods in my life and in the world.”
That intensity is implied by the album’s title. “I think it reflects the times that this music came to life,” he says. “March is a title with many meanings. It can evoke a sense of urgency, a sense of purpose, a sense of momentum and an anticipation and hope for better days.” - John Frederick Moore