Tomas Fujiwara Exploring the Drums' Potential as an Orchestra in Miniature


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The drummer Tomas Fujiwara works with rhythm as a pliable substance, solid but ever shifting.

Over the last five years he has established a busy profile on the experimental end of the jazz spectrum, where such perspective is vital; before that he was a cast member of “Stomp," the polymorphously percussive Off Broadway show. 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.

He also has a steady band, the Hook Up, that illuminates the strength of his approach. First convened a couple of years ago, it's a gathering of sharp young improvisers who separately share some history with Mr. Fujiwara: the tenor saxophonist Brian Settles, the trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, the guitarist Mary Halvorson and the bassist Danton Boller. Their output at the Jazz Gallery on Thursday night was insightful, invigorating, hard to put a finger on.

The first set consisted of music by Mr. Fujiwara, most of it drawn from “Actionspeak" (482), his accomplished debut, due out in September. Its aesthetic points toward Wayne Shorter, particularly his writing for the Miles Davis Quintet of the 1960s: sleek, enigmatic post-bop, more suggestive than demonstrative.

Mr. Fujiwara's playing conveyed some of what Tony Williams was up to in that band, starting with a conception of the drum set as a full-canvas instrument, almost orchestral in its scope. (Like Williams, he spent years studying under Alan Dawson, who was a revered percussion teacher in Boston.) This was music with a history, smartly informed and firmly moored.

Yet its basic feeling was contemporary. Mr. Fujiwara composes with a modern ear and an episodic approach: his tunes begin in one place and end someplace else, mutating in stages along the way.

“Opal" started as an odd-metered calypso, plunged into a walking swing, then assumed a murkier pulse, with each section springing from some startled logic. “Should I Do" employed a rolling funk groove, over which trumpet and tenor played a stutter- syncopated line -- Mr. Fujiwara has attributed that cadence, loosely, to a famous verse by the rapper AZ -- before simmering down to ballad dimensions.

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