It is hard to think of a better current working band than Tomas Fujiwara & The Hook Up, who concluded the 28th annual Magic Triangle Jazz Series on Thursday, April 27. That is a bold statement, of course, impossible to quantify or confirm. But the quality of the writing, the musicality of the performance and the ease of execution all point to an ensemble of the highest caliber.
With material composed by the drummer/bandleader and drawn from the quintet’s three releases on 482 Music, the concert had an emotional range and an unpretentious virtuosity that made the 80-minute set whiz by.
Ongoing problems with the UMass Music Department meant we only got access to Bezanson Recital Hall an hour before the performance. But because the instruments did not require amplification, and because the band: Jonathan Finlayson, trumpet, Brian Settles, tenor saxophone and flute, Mary Halvorson, guitar, Adam Hopkins, bass and Fujiwara, drums, were so relaxed and efficient, we were able to start on time.
Over the course of the evening, every musician had an unaccompanied solo turn. It gave us a chance to fully appreciate each of their command and control. Halvorson’s spotlight provided five minutes of sublimity.
She set up loops of sound to play against. She scurried across the fretboard à la Tal Farlow, she skronked like a charter member of the Screaming Headless Torsos. It was a tour de force and an apt illustration of why she is the most celebrated guitarist of her generation. Her spotlight elicited one of the largest ovations of the night.
There are a few dozen elite jazz drummers. Of those, the number who lead bands is smaller, and those who are first rate composers, smaller still. Fujiwara is one of them. We got a chance to hear Fujiwara’s precise and dynamic drumming last month when he performed with Halvorson’s Reverse Blue quartet at Smith College. On Thursday we got the opportunity to hear the full range of his art. Impressive stuff.
With the exception of the bass chair, the personnel of The Hook Up has not changed since the band formed in 2009. That is a rarity in today’s jazz world, and a testament to personal chemistry and engagement. But Adam Hopkins, who replaced Trevor Dunn, who replaced Danton Boller, sounded like a charter member. His booming, rock-solid time anchored the proceedings, allowing the others to frolic and explore the tunes like youngsters at a playground, who know a parent is near.
You probably don’t know Brian Settles. He was born and still lives in the Washington, DC area. Like Rich Halley (Portland, OR) and Tim Haldeman (Ann Arbor), Settles is a major force on tenor saxophone, doing yeoman work outside of New York and beyond the ken of the chattering class. He was a convincing soloist and a strong foil for his front line partner, Jonathan Finlayson.
Finlayson is best known as an integral member of Steve Coleman’s Five Elements ensemble, but he also leads Sicilian Defense, which has two outstanding releases on Pi Recordings. Unlike contemporaries like Taylor Ho Bynum, Nate Wooley and Peter Evans, Finlayson does not extend the trumpet vocabulary. But his tone is one of the great wonders of contemporary music, and his note choices are clear, logical and never ostentatious.
The Hook Up is a perfectly balanced, well-oiled machine that moves far beyond the parochial orthodoxy of todays’ standard jazz fare. Here’s to many more years of growth and exploration for one of our most exciting aggregations.