The music of Tomas Fujiwara and his Hook Up band is some of the most deceptively clever jazz out there, which makes it very difficult to describe his music. To attack his aberrant compositions, Fujiwara deploys a pretty pedestrian instrumentation of acoustic bass, guitar, trumpet, tenor sax and his drums, and everyone is playing their instruments with craftsmanship, but not outside the realm of how this instruments are normally played (except for that eccentric guitar player, more on that in a minute). There aren’t a whole bunch of weird chords, excessively loud playing or gimmickry going on, but somehow, the air is different. So in trying to come up with ways to describe the music of Fujiwara & The Hook Up’s second album The Air Is Different, I went back and checked out the words of our very own Mark Saleski.
A couple of years ago, Mark surveyed that first album, Actionspeak (2010). In his usual incisive way, Mark uses the metaphor of looking at fish in an aquarium at an angle to illustrate how minor adjustments to the norm can vastly alter perceptions. Mark goes on to explain that “music can sound ‘normal’ and then ‘bend’ into a different shape, one that retains elements of what we know as western music while displaying these completely new facets and geometries.” I’ve listened to Actionspeak and I get what he’s saying.
That kind of imagery can be used to define Fujiwara’s follow-up, The Air Is Different, too. The participants are mostly the same: Fujiwara (drums), Brian Settles (tenor sax), Jonathan Finlayson (trumpet), and Mary Halvorson (guitar) . Trevor Dunn replaces Danton Boller on acoustic bass. Sure enough, Air is almost like Actionspeak, Part 2. Fujiwara has likely spent a lifetime developing his singular method for composing and arranging his music, and there’s no sense in so quickly disposing such a successful formula.
Fujiwara songs won’t move in a rapid pace, but they never, ever set still either; they constantly moving from one place to another. His players solo and will often take turns doing so within a song – sounds normal, right? – but most of the time they are soloing over entirely different phases of a song (“Smoke-Breathing Lights” is a good illustration of that). The leader behind the kit will also often peel away layers of his band down to one, two or three members, briefly functioning as solo, duo or trio, then returning to the full quintet as the song moves into another idea: the show stopping double brainstorm between Settles’ yearning sax and Fujiwara’s colorful, muted drums in the middle of “Lineage” shows how this can work to make both harmony and musicianship work as equal partners to make something compelling.
Halvorson, like scant few guitarists, can define the character of an entire band’s tonal makeup without have to scream for attention. She can turn on you unexpectedly on a dime, forcing your to pay attention. The pretty tones she spins on “For Ours” turns into nasty-assed Derek Bailey skronking at the beginning of the next track, “Cosmopolitan (Rediscovery)” (see Youtube above). Her mood can abruptly change even within a song, as on “Double Lake, Defined,” where a little bit of fuzz tone and her signature dipping notes goes a long way. Her comping is very sympathetic, too, as she bolsters and even spars with Finlayson’s trumpet at one point during “Lineage.” (I’ll have much more to say about this most contrary Mary soon, as we put an ear on her upcoming May release Bending Bridges).
Even with all the significant individual expression going on, Fujiwara succeeds in making this record, like the last one, a group accomplishment. The team spirit of these budding young stars of New York’s Downtown scene point the way forward for where acoustic jazz can go. Truly creative music might be hard to describe, but sometimes, as with the case of The Air Is Different, you just know it when you hear it.