Tomas Fujiwara Credit: Amy Touchette

October’s Triple Double (Firehouse 12), a fantastic sextet album from drummer Tomas Fujiwara, includes a piece called “For Alan” that’s largely a duet between the bandleader and drummer Gerald Cleaver—but it opens with a recording the 39-year-old Fujiwara made when he was just ten. That recording includes a snippet of a lesson he was taking from master drummer Alan Dawson, who’s best known for his work with saxophonists Booker Ervin and Sonny Rollins. Fujiwara hesitates to improvise, and though Dawson gives him a pass “for now,” he insists that “you’re gonna have to do this,” explaining that “it’s the power of playing music . . . to express oneself within the framework of the piece.”

Dawson stresses the importance of developing an overall improvisational mind-set, rather than just learning how to solo—he stresses the importance of keeping your head in the performance, so that you can deal with contingencies such as a foot pedal breaking. Fujiwara’s drumming on the old tape is rudimentary, as you might expect, but as he and Cleaver improvise over it, they generate dazzling interplay, rumbling intensity, and polyrhythmic dialogue. And Dawson’s message—as well as the fact that Fujiwara held on to the tape for so long—resonates just as loudly as the music.

Fujiwara is known for his keen ear and simpatico playing, and has worked with admirable restraint and empathy in projects led by saxophonist Matana Roberts, cellist Tomeka Reid, and cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, among others. He’s also a strong bandleader, writing for a bruising, noisy trio and a melodic postbop quintet called the Hook Up. To assemble the band present on Triple Double, Fujiwara needed skill, imagination, and nerve—not just anybody could play alongside so many strong, distinctive musicians without fading into the wallpaper. The album’s title comes from basketball, but it also describes the lineup, which consists of three pairs of instrumentalists—Fujiwara and Cleaver, Bynum and trumpeter Ralph Alessi, and electric guitarists Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook. The leader not only writes thorny, memorable themes for everyone to improvise over but also maps out a shifting variety of interactive contexts, both composed and free.

Part of Fujiwara’s genius is choosing players with such different approaches. Halvorson’s slaloming sound employs a Line 6 pedal to maniacally bend pitches, but otherwise her playing is clean and pure; Seabrook, on the other hand, betrays his love of heavy metal and prog rock with his distorted tone and spastic flurries. Alessi is a warm, lyrical improviser with precise intonation, while Bynum prefers abstract shapes and crude smears. The two drummers have distinct styles as well, but on this recording they deftly merge into one fluid stream of rhythm.

Fujiwara has also written a range of compositions: “Love and Protest” contrasts a mournful, slow-moving melody with feverish drumming, and the convoluted march “Toasting the Mart” includes a perfectly deployed hand-clap pattern and alternately funny and sinister commentary by the guitars and horns. Below you can check out the opening track, “Diving for Quarters,” which is one of my favorites—I especially like the way it begins with a showcase for the yin-yang of Halvorson and Seabrook.
Today’s playlist:

Paula Shocron/Germán Lamonega/Pablo Díaz, Tensegridad (Hatology)
Tewold Redda, Eritrea’s Guitar Pioneer (Domino Sound)
Nicola Ratti, The Collection (Room40)
Jim Black, Malamute (Intakt)
Natalie Clein, Bloch/Dallapiccola/Ligeti (Hyperion)