This is the first of a multi-part preview of Tomas Fujiwara & the Hook Up’s new release, After All Is Said, set to be out on 482 Music, April 21. This record comes on the heels of the band’s two highly-regarded earlier albums, Actionspeak (2010) and The Air Is Different (2012). Headed by consummate drummer and composer Fujiwara, the new record will feature three of the quintet’s original members–Jonathan Finlayson (trumpet), Brian Settles (tenor saxophone, flute), and Mary Halvorson (guitar). The new addition since 2012 is veteran bassist Michael Formanek, contributing his signature robust sound.
I asked Mr. Fujiwara to share some of the thoughts and ideas that went into the making of the new album.
Cisco Bradley: What ideas inspired the new album of music that you are releasing with the Hook Up?
Tomas Fujiwara: At this point, I’m constantly writing music and working out ideas for this ensemble. I have the musicians’ voices in my head–their approach to sound and improvisation, phrasing and interpretation of written material, color and mood–and I write with that in mind. I write to focus on the specifics of each musician and their approach, and I write to push them out of comfort zones. And I always write to try and create an environment for some new combinations within the ensemble, not just of players, but of textures and sonic relationships. There has to be a certain element of risk and there has to be space for spontaneity and musical “problem solving” in real time. The challenge is to choreograph, but with a lot of space to let things take shape in their own way with each performance. Like everything in life, it’s all about balance.
It’s usually hard to pinpoint exact inspiration for a piece of music. In the case of “The Comb,” the inspiration is clear. It was a story, told to me by my stepfather, about my step grandfather, who I never met, that really resonated with me. I started writing that composition immediately after hearing the story. I always write with the idea of a soundtrack–music to accompany a narrative, a scene, an image, etc. That is probably Wayne Shorter’s biggest influence on me. When I read about him writing music to accompany visual images (movies, comic books, etc.) it really hit home, because all of his music has so much richness that goes much deeper than notes and sound. Evocative–and in a very open ended way, so you create your own image rather than having the composer tell you what you’re supposed to see. “The Comb” is a rare exception because it’s a specific story that I am both composing for and telling the audience–my step father, Pirooz Vakili, wrote the story for the album liner notes. For the most part, I try not to tell people too much about the inspiration for a piece, because I want them to create their own narrative, image, interpretation. I love to hear from them what it is. A lot of times people will ask me what a piece is about, and I’ll say, “you tell me what it was about.” I’m always fascinated by the answer, and sometimes it even inspires me to write more and to look at the composition in new ways. I want the listener to experience the music in their own way and to create their own narrative. In today’s world, a lot of people don’t have the patience or focus to do that, and I think that’s a shame. They want to know, “this piece is about person R who did action V which is significant in ways Q, D, and B, and culturally relevant to P, Z, and L and follows a continuum of Y, and therefore you should pay attention and look for these things because if not, you’re not hip or smart or in the know.” That can be quick and easy and you can “process” a lot rather efficiently and appear to speak on it. But, if people are interested, I’d like them to just take some time and listen to the music and come up with whatever they draw from it, as unaffected by pre-judgement as possible. I have an actor friend who used to go to plays and not read a word of the program while sitting in his seat waiting for the performance to start. That was a powerful lesson for me. He didn’t want to know the name of the actors, what they had done, where they had studied, etc. He just wanted to experience it. After the show, he might look at that information to learn more about the production, the people involved, etc., but he started with the piece. I guess, that’s my ideal. To “open” with the piece and let the other things (discussion, analysis, opinions, etc.) follow. Admittedly, a little bit idealistic, but we can all have an ideal we strive for!
CB: This is now your third record with this band. How has the band evolved since The Air Is Different?
TF: Since The Air is Different was recorded, the great bassist, composer, and improviser Michael Formanek has joined the group. As with all of the members of the ensemble, he has a strong and personal musical approach that affects how the music sounds and where it goes. Brian Settles has started playing flute on some of the compositions (“Lastly” on the upcoming After All Is Said, and, in live performances, “Folly Cove” from our first album, Actionspeak). The dynamics within the group have grown and deepened over time, through this ensemble, and, more and more, in other ensembles (Michael’s big band and smaller groups, Mary’s quintet and septet, etc.). As I compose for the band, the roles I have defined, in my mind, for each member within a composition become much more fluid, with more and more possibilities at my disposal as a writer and bandleader. I try to think of every possible combination, and utilize as many of them as I can over the course of a book of music, set list, etc. I’m also using a wider variety of methods to “write out” and explain my pieces to the band, sometimes purposefully leaving out information to see what can happen with minimal instruction, other times being very specific about a certain section and what needs to happen. As the group has played together and developed over time, I’ve had more opportunities to work in different strategies and methods. Each composition on After All Is Said had a unique starting point, a way of developing and realizing that first idea, and an approach to presenting it to the ensemble to play and make their own. And yet, I feel like the album has a continuity and unity of sound throughout that is very important to me in making an album and having a band that sounds like a band and not a collection of musicians.