Drummer and Composer Anthony Fung Announces New Album Fo(u)rth, due out September 29, 2023
Fourteen years ago, when Canadian drummer Anthony Fung moved to Boston to attend the Berklee College of Music, his new teacher—the larger-than-life drum legend, Ralph Peterson—had something to say about a life in music. “Onward and upward,” remembers Fung—“that was his whole philosophy. Forward. Forth.”
Now with three full-length recordings as a leader already under his belt, Fung’s newest studio effort pays honest tribute to his mentor’s mantra. Set for release on September 29, 2023 it is entitled Fo(u)rth. As a concept, it features his longtime trio—of young stars Luca Alemanno, bass, and Michael Ragonese, piano—welcoming modern saxophone legend Mark Turner into their circle. As a statement, Fo(u)rth is a freshly thrilling whirl of contemporary writing and improvisation which remains gallantly off-the-cuff. “A snapshot in time,” remarks the composer, “not overthinking what’s happening.”
This philosophy of fearless forward-motion is dear to the drummer-leader. For his last record—2022’s What Does It Mean To Be Free?, which Fung produced and mixed himself during the early pandemic days—his desire was to “Capture this moment in time and not to be too precious about the music.” Fung, thusly, is a prime example of when “new school” playing meets the “old-school” mentality: you get into the studio, you press record, and you hit. As always, you forge ahead. And for your new recording, you call your hero Mark Turner and see if he’s into collaborating.
“Mark moved to LA a couple of years ago—during the pandemic,” remembers Fung. Turner was an early inspiration for the drummer. “People of our generation,” he says, “we grew up listening to a lot of Kurt Rosenwinkel, and hearing Mark on those records.” And for Fung, that saxophonist “with this wide, intervalic, leaping sound”—a well-beloved idiosyncracy of Turner’s that renders him instantly identifiable—“well, it was always captivating to me.
“I met him a few times over the years; we were really interested in talking with each other, in playing with each other. So this past December, I asked him: would you be down to record two singles with me? He goes, ‘Yeah.’
“And then, a month later, I’d written all this new music—specifically for him. I was in that mode of writing every single day—three to four hours of writing as soon as I’d wake up. All those songs were written around him; and so a week before the recording session, I tell him, ‘Hey: I wrote all this music. You still down?’” And he was. Then it wasn’t just a couple of singles anymore: it was a full record.”
A full record filled with surprise. Over the course of eight tracks—including four originals written for Turner, two drum interludes, one Monk tune, and a piano trio lullaby written for the bandleader’s father—the latest of Anthony Fung’s voice, both compositionally and on his instrument, is beautifully unfurled.
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On the album’s opening number, “The Valley,” the composer’s cinematic style enters the foreground. “I do a lot of film scoring,” he shares, “and I recently moved to the Valley in L.A.” The iconic San Fernando Valley is known for housing both Warner Bros. and Disney’s film studios, as well as Universal Theme Park. “I thought it would be nice to write something really just reflective of where I’m at right now.
“People don’t want to drive to the valley—it’s so far, it’s so hot—but that’s where I live. So I conceived of the melody like this—high points, low points. Multiple sections—1, 2, 3, 4—where each has its own distinct vibe for an extended moment. If you listen to Mark’s solo section, it’s very up, positive, light, and energetic—but there’s these parts of the valley that aren’t so easy, aren’t so great. So when you hear Mike’s piano solo section, it’s very intricate; slightly dark; a little aggressive.”
On “A Second Chance,” Fung is inspired again by the silver screen, this time hearing a “soaring-type melody” that refracts the urgency and emotional heft of dystopian movies and television shows like Fung’s recent favorite, Alice In Borderland—in which, he explains, “a meteorite hits the earth and everyone goes straight to limbo. They don’t go to heaven or hell, they go straight to limbo; and there, you have to survive these games: you can potentially die. And you don’t want to go back to your old self.” The album’s second song poses this question—of second chances in life—with an optimism that aches while surging forward. “When I write, a lot of times I’ll have an idea: of where I want it to go, how I want it to feel,” says Fung. “For this one, I thought, ‘I just want this melody to be soaring.’”
“A Drummerlude” is the first of the album’s two solo drum tracks. Fung explores the warmer textures of his cymbals across a brisk and roiling tempo and discovers rhythms on their bells—ultimately, he finds sharp, flurrying swells over the tom-toms. “Some of my favorite lessons with Ralph,” he shares, “he’d put on some album and say: ‘Just play. Lemme hear you play along.’ Shapes and colors; melodic drumming.” It serves as an introduction to “Utopia”—a yearning folk melody that, of a sudden, leaps from a cliff to fly with pealing and cascading high notes. Turner sings wild, colorful melodies in a patiently developed solo; Ragonese builds a concise statement to a pitch; and Fung and Alemanno churn throughout, insistent and constantly attentive. “Utopia” feels like a nighttime chase through a forest. As on “A Second Chance,” Fung is inspired again by the dystopian imagination, and again his commitment is to an optimism, but one that bears its grief, carries its sorrow. “Utopia,” he muses: “It’s open, vast. What would the world be like if it were like this? Or like this, or like this? Utopia: meaning, you want to live in a place that is everything you thought the world would be. Oh, and also”—he grins—“I wanted to write a line that only Mark could play—’cause he can play way up high—so I wrote something with all these ledger lines in it, just for him.”
In “The Upside Down,” the album’s ballad, Turner sings Fung’s pensive, battle-worn lament. The song takes its title from another of his favorite TV shows, Stranger Things, in which the Upside Down is a shadowy alternate reality, ridden with vicious monsters and positioned in mysteriously parallel relation to the normal world. “At every given point in your reality, there’s the upside down, the alternate realities,” says Fung. Ragonese’s solo is sensitive and rich in color; Fung and Alemanno support his search. “Me, Mike and Luca, we’ve been playing for 7 years; me and Luca, we’re sidemanning on many of the same gigs here on the west coast. Somehow they can just feel what colors I’m going for. There’s a lot of trust with those guys.”
The album’s title track is its second and final solo drum improvisation. In “Fo(u)rth,” Fung exhibits both his characteristically powerful drum technique and a storyteller’s fidelity to theme, motif, elaboration. Indeed, in this short piece he honors the melodic call of Max Roach; the ornamental genius of Philly Joe Jones; the spacious exploration of Tony Williams; and the exuberance of his own late teacher, Ralph Peterson.
“Some of my favorite lessons with Ralph were just emulating with sound. Try to sound like Billy Higgins, try to sound like Tony, like Jack [Dejohnette], don’t leave any of these guys behind. Try to get all the directions on the instrument! Ralph was a very enthusiastic drummer.”
“Fo(u)rth” bursts forth into “Boo Boo’s Birthday,” Thelonious Monk’s quizzical, slanted romp; but Fung puts the song through an assortment of dimensional shifts between breakneck tempo and a stepping lilt. A modernity and a writerly whimsy animate this number, which is the only non-original composition of the recording. It is the final song to feature Turner, and as such, “Boo Boo’s Birthday” serves as the climax of the album. Fung delivers on his mission. “I was thinking a lot about Ralph. Something like: [Caribbean] clave meets West Africa meets jazz. Ralph was into everything: he has the Billy Higgins, he has the Jack, the Tony. He was carrying Art Blakey’s drums up and down stairs, back in the day. And so Ralph was almost like—modern drumming, without him thinking about the modernity of it.”
The same goes for Fung: “I really tried not to think too much about it. Even the record itself: I don’t want it to be like: ‘This is the most iconic thing I’ll ever put out.’ No, this is a snapshot. All the music was new: Mark met us in the studio, and that was the first time we played the music together. But honestly,” he confesses, “I always wanted to do a record like that.” This “first-look” approach is, of course, a time-honored and semi-sacred tradition of jazz. “Why should it have to be perfect? The whole process—writing a whole album for Mark in a month—wasn’t perfect.” It is Fung’s mix of inspiring humility and insatiable drive that show up inside the boundaries of the snapshot.
The album ends soberly with “Hero’s Song,” a piano trio piece with a childlike simplicity. “That’s actually a song I wrote for my dad,” says Fung. “My dad passed away when I was four years old. I wanted this one to be really innocent—almost a lullaby. There’s no improvisation that happens: the bass line’s written, the melody’s written, it’s just a song.” The album ends, then, with the peace of plainness: another face of that same simplicity, Fung’s “walk, not talk” approach.
“I tried,” he shares, “to get away from what I thought it’s supposed to sound like. To not think too much about it: to trust the process.
“What comes out,” he says with a certainty, “that’s what happens.”
Fourth releases independently on September 29, 2023.
- The Valley
- A Second Chance
- A Drummerlude
- The Upside Down
- Boo Boo’s Birthday
- Hero Song
All compositions by Anthony Fung, except #7 by Thelonious Monk