Described as “a ubiquitous presence in the New York scene… an artist whose urbane writing is equal to his impressively nuanced drumming” (Point of Departure), Brooklyn-based Tomas Fujiwara is an active player in some of the most exciting music of the current generation. He leads the bands Triple Double, 7 Poets Trio, and Tomas Fujiwara & The Hook Up; is a member of the collective trio Thumbscrew (with Mary Halvorson and Michael Formanek); has a collaborative duo with Taylor Ho Bynum; and engages in a diversity of creative work with Anthony Braxton, John Zorn, Mary Halvorson, Tomeka Reid, Matana Roberts, Taylor Ho Bynum, Nicole Mitchell, Ben Goldberg, Amir ElSaffar, Benoit Delbecq, and many others.
In 2021, Tomas won the Downbeat Critics Poll for Rising Star Drummer, and premiered two suites of new music as part of his Roulette Residency: “You Don’t Have to Try” (with Meshell Ndegeocello) and “Shizuko." Tomas Fujiwara's Triple Double released its second album, "March," in 2022 on Firehouse 12 Records. “Drummer Tomas Fujiwara works with rhythm as a pliable substance, solid but ever shifting. His style is forward-driving but rarely blunt or aggressive, and never random. He has a way of spreading out the center of a pulse while setting up a rigorous scaffolding of restraint…A conception of the drum set as a full-canvas instrument, almost orchestral in its scope.” (New York Times)
"They really help me get completely lost in the sound and the details of the music, whether listening to mixes or masters, or tracking in the studio." - Tomas Fujiwara
Here's our talk with Tomas:
Can you pick out any highlights from your work that you're particularly proud of?
It’s tough to pick out one or even a few things. Everything is special and personal to me in some kind of way, and even the failures and disappointments have been learning experiences and opportunities to grow. When I really think about it, I think the biggest highlight is that I’ve been able to do this for so long, to have moved to New York to be a musician when I was 17 years old, and to still be here taking it one day at a time. I don’t take it for granted, and I’m super thankful, and proud of my resiliency and the work I’ve put in.
How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on these days?
Most of the music I’m a part of uses at least some, and often a lot, of improvisation and interpretation, especially for the drums. Most of the time, I’m not working with a prescribed or composed drum part, so I’m looking at the score and coming up with my own parts and concepts. Thankfully, most of the people I collaborate with trust me and my choices, and there’s good communication about how what I’m playing fits into the big picture. I’m always trying to listen to the whole and see what I can contribute to making each song as balanced, expressive, and creative as possible. I don’t have an agenda of what I need to show I can do, or how often I need to solo, or how impressive my playing needs to be. When I think about the music and listen to it as it develops with those kinds of thoughts, I’m able to see the moments to step forward or hang back, add density or sparsity, support or add tension, etc. My goal is to play a role in helping the ensemble create something personal, honest, and ego-free.
How did you get started in music? What kind of music did you listen to while growing up and how has that progressed?
In short, the album “Rich vs. Roach,” a snare drum demonstration by Keith Gibson, and the teaching and mentorship of Joyce Kouffman, Alan Dawson, and Robert Ponte. As a kid I mostly listened to the pop of the day with my friends; a lot of early hip hop, r&b, movie soundtracks, etc. I got into jazz through my teachers; for example, Alan always had his students sing while they played Stick Control exercises, so I had to do my research to find AABA, ABAB, ABAC, etc. forms and that led me to Duke Ellington, old standards/showtunes and the recordings of those tunes by Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, etc. “Moanin',” by Art Blakey was a big breakthrough for me. Lee Morgan’s solo reminded me of the expressiveness, swagger, cleverness, “word play,” and lyricism of the hip hop I was listening to, and I saw the bridge.
Can you name any factors that influenced the course of your musical life? Heroes, role models, moments, interactions, etc?
My mother and stepfather were very supportive of my interest in music. As I get older, I realize how cool they were for encouraging a son that wanted to do something they knew nothing about and to follow a path that is very challenging. I am very fortunate that my first teachers were all positive, encouraging, and knowledgeable, and that they provided me with a good foundation in the music and nurtured my growing interest and love of the music: My first private drum instructor, Joyce Kouffman; Keith Gibson, the drum teacher for the Cambridge Public School system; My high school band director Robert Ponte; And my teacher for 8 years, the great Alan Dawson. Once I moved to New York, I must say I was met with more skepticism and negativity from a lot of my elders, but I did learn from that, and I also learned a lot from my peers whom I was beginning to play with. And, I should say, it wasn’t all negative from the elders. Chico Hamilton, Barry Altschul, Pheeroan AkLaff, and Matt Wilson have always been very kind and generous towards me, and that meant a lot to me, especially as a teenager just arriving in NYC and not knowing anyone.
Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire toward a similar path for their own careers?
The longer I do this, the more I realize that everyone has their own path in navigating a life in the creative arts. Of course, it’s good to follow models that inspire you, or make sense to who you are as a person, but ultimately, each path will be different and personal. Since we aren’t involved in a profession that follows a pretty specific school-to-company-to-promotions-to-retirement process, I think it’s important to find a balance between knowing what you want while staying open to possibilities and opportunities that may come up at different points in your life. I could say to work hard, be professional, and be a good person, but I’d be lying if I said that that will necessarily lead to anything other than making you happy, if those are things that are important to you personally. I know of and have worked with plenty of “successful” people who don’t display any of those attributes, and that’s more about just how the world is, rather than being specific to the music world, etc. The most important thing is to take care of your physical, mental, personal, and creative health as best as you can, and try to engage the art world, and the world in general, from that place of balance.
How long have you been working with headphones, and how do you typically use them in your workflow?
Pretty much all my musical life. I use them most on a) travel days—I love to get lost in music I want to check out, and block out a lot of the nonsense that comes with travel, b) in the recording studio to create a sonic environment and balance that make me feel comfortable to be creative and serve the project and the music, and c) to listen to mixes and masters. A great pair of headphones is invaluable to me and my work, especially the process of listening to mixes.
How have your Audeze headphones affected your work?
They sound incredible! (They're also very comfortable to have on for hours at a time.) They really help me get completely lost in the sound and the details of the music, whether listening to mixes or masters, or tracking in the studio.
Can you tell us what you've been working on with them recently?
I put them to good use immediately... listening to the mix and master of Illegal Crowns' (collective quartet with Benoît Delbecq, Mary Halvorson, and Taylor Ho Bynum) third album, listening to the mix and master of the 4th album by my duo with Taylor, and recording for three days with Adam O'Farrill's Octet for his new project, For These Streets.