Tomas Fujiwara & Taylor Ho Bynum – Stepwise
To borrow a term from baseball, there is currently a lot of positional depth amongst jazz trumpeters and drummers, especially with regard to the emerging young lions. Distinguishing oneself on either instrument in this environment is a triumph of ability and capacity; Taylor Ho Bynum (cornet) and Tomas Fujiwara (drums) can claim both.
THB and Fujiwara have been playing together since high school, and still participate in each other’s projects, collaborating in The Thirteenth Assembly, Positive Catastrophe, and Bynum’s trio and septet. Having played together so often for so long, it follows that they have a sort of preternatural feel for each other’s playing, ably demonstrated on their 2007 release as a duo, True Events. On their second effort Stepwise, they don’t push the boundaries of their first disc so much as revel deeper in the skin of their collaboration.
In contrast to many jazz albums released in the past year, Stepwise is not an album of vaulting ambition. The concept is basic, the compositions generally uncomplicated—THB and Fujiwara are comfortable in their mastery of the material, and the spotlight shines entirely on their skills and interplay. The playing is not just typically excellent, it’s conversational and buoyant, engaging the listener not through forceful attention-grabbing but rather coherence and seductiveness.
THB is one of the best out there, having worked with many of the big names in avant-jazz: Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, Bill Dixon, Matana Roberts, Fred Ho, etc., as well as with many up-and-coming names through his own groups and production work with Firehouse12. While he certainly has the elsewhere-demonstrated facility for a high degree of virtuosity, for the most part on Stepwise he dispenses with the pyrotechnics, disgorging lines speech-like over the percussion’s pullulations.
Fujiwara for his part really shines on this record. While increasingly many of the young lions in jazz drumming demonstrate an almost ludicrous aptitude for lock-tight grooving, Fujiwara engages fully with his gift for expressive timing, creating ebbs and flows that not only compliment the cornet’s vocalizations, but create an independent voice in dialogue.
The interplay between the musicians takes on multiple manifestations throughout. On the title track, Fujiwara slowly increases his percussive activity over the course of nearly seven minutes, starting with the lightest of taps and ending with a full on skin assault. It seems almost a mounting frustration with Bynum’s cornet, a stubborn wah-wah that reacts to the emerging buckwild tumult without seeming to think much of it.
“Splits,” by contrast, is a whirligig of congruous reaction. Despite being the longest track at ten minutes, it is also one of the freest, allowing the two performers to sneak in some unhinged technique amidst the vacillating sections. Still, the performers give each other ample space, making their intermittent co-sputtering more effective. It is in these passages that the joy frequently referenced in the liner notes seems the most sonically embodied.
I.e., this thing is pretty fun, as far as free-jazz drum/cornet duos go. The album’s 43 minutes are brisk, never-dragging, and show two excellent musicians at the top of their game. It seems odd to refer to them as “young jazz artists” still—they’ve just about outlasted Bird by now—but it’s undoubtedly the case that they’re only now approaching the peak of their creative powers. Stepwise isn’t the pinnacle, but nonetheless is a very listenable step to that zenith.