Tomas Fujiwara: Triple Double
Firehouse 12 Records

A well-established figure in New York's fertile contemporary jazz scene, Tomas Fujiwara proves himself on this solid outing to be not only one of the city's most dynamic drummers but a canny strategist and ringleader too. Fundamental to the success of the recording are the musicians assembled for the date: the leader and Gerald Cleaver on drums, electric guitarists Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook, and horn players Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet and Ralph Alessi on trumpet. Without wishing to take anything away from the calibre of the compositions Fujiwara's provided to the players, this particular combination is so powerful it'd probably make the lamest material sound spectacular.

That the rapport is so strong shouldn't surprise. After all, the sextet assembles personnel from two longstanding trios, one featuring the drummer with Halvorson and Bynum and the other a Fujiwara outfit with Alessi and Seabrook; further to that, these are players with shared histories that go way back, and as a result all involved dedicate themselves to realizing Fujiwara's ensemble concept and complementing each other. While compositional structures are in place, the players appear in no way restricted by them and solo liberally, their individual voices granted ample room to express themselves. A genuine sense of community emerges over the course of the album's ten tracks.

The guitarists inaugurate the opening cut “Diving for Quarters” with a bold improvisation that immediately affirms the recording's freewheeling spirit, after which the others ease into the picture, Bynum squeezing notes from his cornet in a blustery manner reminiscent of Lester Bowie and Alessi easing in with a more controlled turn alongside the drummers' muscular prodding. Even at this early stage, it's evident that while the ensemble sound is full and rich, it's not so dense that it grows muddy; this opening performance also reveals this to be a group that can definitely generate heat when the music demands it, as the roiling second half of “Diving for Quarters” and the later “Decisive Shadow” illustrate.

I'll admit there's one part of me that would have enjoyed hearing bass players added to the group, simply for the extra grounding such a bottom end would bring to the material. The argument, of course, against adding more elements is that the already dense presentation might become too cluttered and the individual voices less distinguishable. As things stand, the playing of both guitarists and horn players can be clearly separated out of the mass and their contributions fully appreciated.

Certainly there's no small amount of pleasure derived from hearing the guitarists' spiky riffs colliding with the horn players' own declamations. Halvorson dazzles throughout with her customary audacity, while the equally daring Seabrook proves to be a natural foil (see the blistering “Decisive Shadow” for a particularly strong showcase by the guitarists). Interestingly, though saxophone isn't part of the Triple Double mix, the music reminds me at times (e.g., “Toasting the Mart”) of early Tim Berne recordings like Fulton Street Maul and Fractured Fairy Tales, with Fujiwara sharing with Berne an affinity for intricate structures and dense ensemble playing.

During “Love and Protest,” Fujiwara and Cleaver stoke a tumultuous firestorm against mournful melodic figures in a way that recalls Ornette's “Broken Shadows.” The album's most unusual piece, however, is “For Alan,” which includes a recording of a conversation between a ten-year-old Tomas and Alan Dawson, the legendary drummer with whom Fujiwara studied for eight years before moving to New York (Dawson himself played with Sonny Rollins, Dave Brubeck, Booker Ervin, and others). The teacher's advice to his young charge, to “play according to what you hear and what you feel,” is instantiated throughout Triple Double by all six participants, and consequently, though the album's credited to Fujiwara, it impresses as very much an ensemble affair.

October 2017