Tomas Fujiwara and the Hook Up played two sets of new songs for a packed house on Saturday night. This group seems to keep gaining momentum, led by the masterful drummer/composer, and has been exploring exciting new territory since its most recent release, The Air Is Different (482 Music, 2012). Fujiwara seems to possess limitless energy as a drummer and manages to steadily propel the ensemble along without any reliance upon the mundane. His rhythmic selections maintain a churning kinesis that rarely lets up in its intensity while still providing room for his bandmates to explore their own musical voices. I found myself returning home at 1 am after the show, my body still coursing with the experience of the music.
Fujiwara has alongside him some of the most exciting musicians presently playing in New York: Michael Formanek (bass), Mary Halvorson (guitar), Jonathan Finlayson (trumpet), and Brian Settles (tenor saxophone). The drummer and bassist have a deep understanding of one another, developed just over the past two years, first from their collaborations in the trio Thumbscrew, which also includes Halvorson, and more recently when Fujiwara asked Formanek to be the regular bassist with the Hook Up, beginning in early 2012. The two seem to energize each other and the rest of the band through their playing, never colliding or overwhelming as they build off of each other. Still, they avoid the rigidity that plagues many rhythm sections and maintain a fluid feel like that of falling water.
It seems high time that trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson got more credit for his brilliant playing in various sideperson contexts. As I wrote in a review of Mary Halvorson’s septet record, Illusionary Sea, Finlayson was the foil that ran against the grain so adeptly in that recording. On Saturday night with the Hook Up, he offered many surprising turns in his playing and captivated the audience in his solo moments. Of particular note was his opening solo on the second song of the late set, in which he used space to augment his crisp, unwavering pitch. Rarely has silence been so intense as in these momentary pauses, capturing the feeling of eternity in a few brief seconds, before wrapping the audience up in his ascending arc. He induced those rare shivers that grip a crowd when those present swiftly and simultaneously realize they just witnessed something profound, the sort of thing that Eric Dolphy famously noted, “after it’s over, it’s gone, in the air. You can never capture it again.” Such is the magic of superb live music.
Mary Halvorson is more prominently featured in this batch of new songs than in Fujiwara’s previous compositions. Her driving style of playing guitar gels well with the other personalities in the band. The narrative tension that she constructs–often in rapid, ever-building emotional crescendos–does much to add to the overall energy. She also manages to oscillate between connecting on a rhythmic level with bass and drums and contributing to some interesting melodic resonance with the horns, especially with saxophonist Brian Settles. The tenor player, whose playing is the most subtle in the group, offers a perfect dose of contrast to the pulsating energy of the other players. His mellower approach permeates the musical passageways opened by the more angular rhythm, guitar, and trumpet, while adding his own personal touch and warmth.
Far from the fringe of jazz, Fujiwara and his band are instead at the center of something that is largely new and innovative, fresh and provocative. Through work with some of his generation’s most gifted players, he is consistently expanding his repertoire, challenging convention, and dazzling live audiences with the results. The band will be entering the studio in February 2014 to lay down tracks for their third album.
Previous Recordings by Tomas Fujiwara & the Hook Up