Interview: Tomas Fujiwara on His Early Years as a Musician in New York

Peter Gannushkin /

Interview with Tomas Fujiwara, Oct 1, 2013, at his apartment in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, NY

Cisco Bradley: You played with the Matana Roberts Quartet. I would love to hear about your involvement with that. Maybe I am wrong, but it was my impression that that band never recorded.

Tomas Fujiwara: There actually is a record, a live record, called The Calling, it was basically done on the room mic at Zebulon at one of our gigs. We had a regular gig there about once a month or once every six weeks. It was released on the Utech label. Let me check if I have it … You are in luck! Here you go!

CB: Oh, wow! I will probably have more questions once I have heard it. When was it recorded?

TF: ’04 maybe? Does it say? Zebulon, Brooklyn …

CB: Sometimes those Utech CDs have a little slip inside.

TF: Pretty barebones! [laughs] I know there was a review of it, maybe in All About Jazz, when it was All About Jazz, and not New York City Jazz Record.

CB: I keep coming across records I don’t know about.

TF: You know, the sound is a little tough to hear all of the nuance. I think they had just one mic hanging from the ceiling. You would finish the gig and they would just hand you a CD. I think that’s basically it, maybe a little tweak here and there.

CB: I sometimes actually like those kind of recordings.

TF: Yeah, I remember the review, someone did a review of it, and they described my solo as, what were the words they used? Basically they were saying it takes a while for the solo to get going and just because I started really quiet and if you listen to it you kind of can’t hear anything. No, I’m playing!

CB: You think they would understand it’s the quality of the recording!

TF: Yeah, I’m doing some really quiet stuff there. Yeah, they are like Tomas’ solo begins with like 45 seconds of silence. No, no!

CB: Anything you can tell me about this band, I would love to hear! How the band came together and how concepts behind the band …

TF: I had probably played with Matana a few times before that band was put together and I’m trying to remember, basically since I’ve moved to New York, I’ve had some kind of a connection with people from Chicago that’s kind of grown over the years. She’s from Chicago, spent a lot of time there, and she knows a lot of those musicians, so somehow we had musician friends in common, and so we played together. Actually the first time Mary [Halvorson] and I played together was in a project of hers that just did one concert. And when we started playing regularly, it was in a duo context. She would just come over and we would play duo and then we did some gigs, I feel like we did a number of gigs. She was in Burnt Sugar at the time and they would have one or two bands play before that were usually comprised of Burnt Sugar members and a few times as a duo we did stuff before Burnt Sugar gigs. And then, she decided to put together a quartet. I think that is how I met Thomson. I think she knew Thomson from time in Boston. I think they were both in Boston either at NEC or just living there, so that’s how I know Thomson. And obviously I’ve known Taylor [Ho Bynum] for years.

CB: Is Thomson from Chicago?

TF: No, I feel as if he is from the New England area. I feel like he spent some time at NEC or that he spent some time in Boston. So she put together that quartet and we would play her tunes. For the most part, it was just this regular gig at Zebulon that we did for a while. I don’t know how long we did that for, better part of a year I guess, maybe a little more.

CB: What I could find is that you began playing together in October 2004. CB’s Lounge, Barbes, Jazz Gallery … and then in 2005 you had regular gigs at Zebulon.

TF: That sounds right.

CB: Then a few gigs later in 2006 and even into 2007.

TF: Oh, wow. Really? I feel like it wasn’t that long.

CB: April 15th at Jimmy’s? Maybe I can go double-check that.

TF: And that was the quartet, not some new project? Of ’06 or ’07?

CB: ’07.

TF: I highly doubt that. I remember the first time I did one of the Coin Coin chapters we played at the Moers Festival. That would have been May or June of the year, maybe ’06. From that point on, everything I did with her was the Coin Coin stuff. The quartet was no longer active. I don’t think there was an overlap. That quartet was very much her tunes and once it went into Coin Coin stuff, no matter what chapter it was or lineup, the concept was it was one piece with this system of notation she was developing. Once it went there, it stayed there in terms of when I played with her.

(Photo by Brett Walker)
(Matana Roberts in 2010. Photo by Brett Walker)


CB: What’s the notation that you mentioned?

TF: Well, there’s some Western notation, but there’s also shapes that correspond to certain types of sound, there’s also just text, instructions, or words that you are supposed to represent musically and then just a lot of different cues. So, stuff like that, the rules, there are a lot of common strategies between the pieces. I’ve played at least three of the chapters. It’s hard to tell. Sometimes she calls it the same piece, but she’s made revisions to the actual pieces. So yeah, in terms of my involvement, there was the quartet and then the Coin Coin stuff.

CB: In terms of the notations you mentioned, did that start with the quartet or Coin Coin?

TF: It began with Coin Coin. The Utech music was, in terms of the written stuff, was pretty straight forward in terms of notation. That’s my memory. With Coin Coin stuff there are separate sheets of written instructions or even a key of symbols. With her quartet music maybe she could just give you a couple pieces of sheet music and talk a little bit about it: we are going to go here or we are going to go there. With the Coin Coin stuff there is the sheet music but there is also a key glossary, yeah, like a star means this, or a triangle means that or whatever, and so you apply that to the chart you are reading.

CB: Interesting. I’d almost like to take a look at that. It sounds visually interesting.

TF: I can check really quickly … ok, she had these binders and then the people that were in this thing … a lot of this is on the album cover. [Tomas then demonstrated this visually]

CB: So each time the piece is played, it could take different shapes?

TF: The road map is the same. So we are hitting those boxes to the songs, hitting those boxes in the same order. Now, obviously there is the improvisation element, but there are also different characters and so you are following a different line … so these are five different characters and so for each concert she will tell you that you are a different person.

CB: So each part is played by a different person?

TF: Well, she has done this with large groups so you might have 2, 3, 4 people playing the same part, but in everything I’ve ever done there is at most doubling of a couple of the lines, but usually … the album comes out …

CB: Today, actually. I announced it on my site yesterday. I am dying to hear it.

TF: I haven’t heard any of it. It was fun to record. And that is a quintet, so each one of us had our own part, except Jeremiah, the vocalist, he has a different set of instructions.

CB: So … her quartet. Was it mostly improvisational?

TF: Yeah, they were all her compositions … all or maybe … [looking at the Utech CD] oh now, there are some covers here. There’s a Sun Ra tune, looks like it, but she would obviously arrange them. They were mostly her originals and there was a lot of space for improvisation, whether it was open or over a form with certain parameters, but the concept of that was definitely tune to tune.

CB: I’m curious, I saw some listings in the New York City Jazz Record some listings for the Tomas Fujiwara Group or sometimes the Tomas Fujiwara Quartet with the same people, was this a separate project?

TF: With that, that was a period when I did Stomp for a while. I was leaving that and I was doing gigs and I wanted to be as active as possible during that transition period. So I booked these regular gigs. And so I tried for the same group, but not everybody was available for all of them. Taylor definitely did a lot of them. Matana did a lot of them. Timo [Shanko] did at least one of them … I think beyond those gigs that particular group didn’t … I’m trying to remember what the next thing was after that. What year was that?

CB: 2005.

TF: That sounds about right.

CB: I noticed that you did a series of four at Villa Della Pace.

TF: Yeah, that was an Italian restaurant around the corner from Stomp that we used to hang out at and they had some music, so I did a weekly thing there for a while. I feel like I had Taylor, Timo, and Matana pegged for those, then sometimes someone couldn’t make something. I can’t really remember who else did some of those … Thomson did at least one. Musically, we played a few of my tunes, but it was also some arrangements, not even standards, or even just Wayne Shorter tunes, something like that, Ornette … And like I said, that was just trying to do something during that transition period. I had already been playing with Matana, I’d already been playing with Taylor for years, and I’d played with Timo a bunch. He’s from Boston and we’d played together, and so I was just trying to get some momentum going, but that band never recorded or anything like that.

CB: Anyway, it is good to get any information about groups that didn’t necessarily record.

TF: Yeah, that was really the main focus for that. It was a really important transition for me getting grounded here in New York. By that time, technically, I had been living in New York for years, but I had came and was just getting my feet wet really. I came here when I was 17 … to keep on learning, and I still feel like I am learning now, but I came without a lot of experience. So, what do they say? Trial by fire? So, just coming, listening, doing sessions and all of that stuff. And then I got Stomp and so I was touring. When I came back, I had a few musical connections, Taylor being one of the main ones, that really kind of survived through that time. And then starting over, the tricky thing—having a regular gig, like anyone will tell you, like someone who has a pit gig for a Broadway show or even a regular teaching job or anything like that. In retrospect, I would have returned and told nobody that I was doing Stomp because it was flexible enough that I could have been really busy, but people think “he’s got this regular gig, he’s probably not available.” But it was nice to have that so that the transition to regular living wasn’t so abrupt. And then when I decided to leave it for good, something like those gigs was a conscious effort to add activity without relying upon other people to do that for me. I didn’t put that band together with the intent to … you can see by the venues we played at, I couldn’t get gigs at known places or anything like that. It was just to be out there doing stuff and have people hear me who might not otherwise hear me.

CB: So there was no goal of recording?

TF: I’m really not good at remembering to bring the portable recorder to gigs, I don’t think I had anything like that, but I can check.

CB: I’m just really curious to hear the sound. So, if you ever find anything …

TF: I might not want to hear it! [laughs] But really that [Utech] CD will be a good indication … Matana and Taylor were very important people to me, not just our history together, but they have always been supportive of me and it’s kind of beyond their desire to have me as part of their projects. So, also just very encouraging, they will recommend me for things, if they know of an opportunity. And now this has been going on ten years plus with each of them. And so it was very important to me to have these two very strong people not just as colleagues or supporters, but obviously their musicianship is great. So I feel that that Matana record will show some of that from that period of what we were getting into.

CB: Taylor’s sextet record was recorded in 2005, I believe.

TF: Really? The Middle Picture?

CB: It wasn’t released until 2007.

TF: OK, that makes sense.

CB: So his group was also going around that time.

TF: Yeah, that makes sense. So that’s the first time I started playing with Mary regularly. Evan I had known since college, so we were reunited, so to speak. Now he was playing guitar, when I knew him in college, he was playing saxophone. Taylor and I had obviously maintained a thing. Again, I had known Matt Bauder through Chicago people. And actually while I was in Stomp I hung out in Chicago for about six weeks and we played, but this was the first time I played with him regularly, so it was an introduction to that, and we’ve gone on to collaborate in other things. His quintet has its second record coming out this year, the Day in Pictures. It’s fun. It’s great.

Peter Gannushkin /
Taylor Ho Bynum. Photo by Peter Gannushkin /

CB: I’ve never heard that group play live.

TF: He’s definitely trying to have a CD release party later this year. I will let you know. So, yeah, that sextet was very key. I also met Jessica [Pavone] through that group. In some ways that group was the start of a new community and pool of musicians. I had other ones through other things I was doing, but if you look at that sextet and how much music I’ve gone on to play, especially with Taylor, with Mary, and even with Matt that sextet of Taylor’s was big for that. And then Taylor had a trio with me and Mary that branched off of that. We did a tour, an early tour during that period. There are some trio tracks on that sextet record. Is that the one that goes solo, trio, sextet, or maybe that’s the next one? Anyway, that might be the second one.

CB: So, the trio did record on the sextet record.

TF: Yeah. There’s one, I think it might be the second, the first piece is solo cornet, then the trio, and then this suite of the sextet and maybe another trio and it ends with another solo. It might be the Asphalt … The new one from that group is coming out later this year.

CB: I was wondering about that trio.

TF: Yeah, the sextet went to Europe, but the trio did at least one U.S. tour because for some reason we have a lot of wacky stories about that tour which come up often. I don’t remember what year that was.

CB: Any good stories for the record?

TF: Definitely not for the record! [laughs] No, I mean, it was one of those, where you have … well there was one place in Detroit at this old abandoned factory with rooms that went on forever and one of these rooms had this basketball hoop nailed to a wall and there was a 3 am game between the trio and another band that was playing. Literally we were playing 3-on-3 at 3 in the morning in the pitch black drunk and stoned … you know, stuff like that. Mary’s making every shot she’s taking. She’s standing there, every time someone passes her the ball, it’s going in, going in, going in … I think for me, those early bands and early tours, at least for me were very important to me for this transition that I was making. Obviously everyone in that band was in a different phase of their lives, so it has different significance to everyone. I’ve also always been into the idea of a band, especially what we do—there’re so many moving parts. Someone will get a gig and hire some people, do it, very good musicians, and do it well, professional, and sound good, but there’re are very different dimensions when you have a band and you are a part of that it’s very exciting. And that sextet was very much a band. That was a sound that was bigger than the sum of its parts. If you ever talk to Taylor again, you should ask him about, we played at the Vision Festival with that band, kind of at the end of that sextet’s run, and we’d been playing this same suite for all of our gigs, it was modular, it wasn’t like there was this one piece you just got sick of. We all felt like that Vision Festival gig was the crowning achievement. They recorded it, pretty good quality, and played it on BBC, so he must have a copy of it. The albums are great and it was always fun to be a part of that band and the whole process, but that gig was really … it was the Vision Festival with a really great audience, so it felt like it was 2000 degrees in there [laughs], everyone’s soaking wet. Everyone knew the music so well that we could really be free with it and what I remember with that piece which was great was it would start with solo guitar from Evan and end with solo guitar from Mary, I think it was that way, or the other way around, I’m pretty sure that was it. It was always the book end of the piece.

CB: Each piece?

TF: No, we would always play a suite and we had these pieces and they could be cued this way or that. I think the order could be rearranged, there were these variables, it’s not like you just got sick of playing the same piece. At the same time, we all knew the written material so well that we could just throw it around, but it was always bookended by two very different guitar solos. And they were always great, but on this particular night, Evan just kind of set the mood, we played this crazy set, and then Mary wraps it up perfectly. For everyone else in the band, when we would play those pieces, the concert starts, but I kind of have a couple minutes to get into the mood along with everyone else because I’m not playing. It’s almost like I finish, but the piece isn’t done, and I can kind of come down in a certain way while still being a part of the piece. I just remember that particular concert, it was just really incredible to be a part of that to have the table set to perfectly, you do the whole thing, and then it’s wrapped up perfectly. You should ask him about it. I wonder if it holds up … and that’s one of those where everyone in the band was just like “Wow! That’s the one!”

CB: Where was Vision Fest held at that time?

TF: That was in the auditorium where the Office is now. It’s not the old church. It’s where Arts for Art is now, where they have the Vision series. There’s an almost bigger, theater space.

CB: Well … thanks for sharing all of that. This is just the kind of reflection I need to write a compelling story. It’s interesting to hear you speak so affectionately about those moments.

TF: All of those people are key musicians and human beings in my life and that period with all of us together was really important to me in a lot of ways.

CB: It seems that around that time a new community was really coming together.

TF: Yeah, aside from Taylor, that’s where it started for me with all the others. Probably now I can trace back just about anything that I’m doing now to some kind of event around that time or some kind of gig or session. A fun time, a tough time! Definitely a challenging time for me personally. I mean you are paying dues again, from the bottom and you understand intellectually why, but then again you are doing it again and it can be personally challenging to persevere and obviously you are older and you have other life experiences. In my case, not that I took it into consideration then, that much, but you are a part of this hugely successful … you are doing something that the lay person thinks is very successful [Stomp], so they treat you in a certain way. And obviously I don’t care a whole lot about this, because otherwise I would have made other choices, but the shift in how people treat you is jarring when you go the other way. And most people will only go the other way because of something out of their control and here I’m choosing to leave this dream gig or what would be perceived as a dream gig, so it was a challenging period. These people and this music were the driving forces for it.