Street Date: September 28, 2023
Label: GroundUP Music
A melodic voyage that transcends the ordinary, On Becoming is a sonic odyssey that highlights the band's passion for exploration — of sound, of composition, and of the magic found within each fleeting moment.
All About Jazz has hailed the often improvisatory ensemble’s “true eclecticism, drawing [their] influences from many sources”; they called their 2016 self-titled album “a rare and beautiful gem.” Speaking of House of Waters’ 2019 album Rising, Everything is Noise declared, “Music that is as wonderfully engaging and notably unique as this only surfaces once in a long while.”
NPR called the group’s Max ZT, who’s worked with everyone from Victor Wooten to the Goo Goo Dolls, “the Jimi Hendrix of the hammered dulcimer” — he even builds his own instruments. And Onstage Review summed up this iridescent, unclassifiable, globe-spanning project: “House of Waters is a band that is bending the very fabric of the musical universe as we know it.”
How do the group themselves define this new offering? “The concept for the album was tuning the collaboration, focusing on the moment, openness, presentness, composition as a connective tool, composition as an isolating tool,” ZT states. “And the fluidity between the two.”
According to House of Waters’ bassist, Moto Fukushima, they strive for openness married to accessibility. “I want to keep the freedom, But if we keep everything free — like certain kinds of abstract music… it can often be a little too far to communicate between us and the audience. We want to have a certain structure and balance.”
Within On Becoming, ZT and Fukushima are joined by first-call accompanists: drummer Antonio Sanchez joins them throughout the album, and guitarist Mike Stern and vocalist Priya Darshini join the innovative duo as special guests.
The opening track, “Folding Cranes,” captures the very first performance House of Waters tracked for On Becoming. But there’s more to it than that; ZT, Fukushima and Sanchez establish their parameters and set the scene for what listeners are about to hear.
“The concept behind it, internally, was to get comfortable with our sounds,” ZT says. “I can set up something, and Moto can set up something, and Antonio can set up something, and we’re like, OK, we’re operating within these regions.”
“It was the beginning of the recording so we had a certain tension, and that kind of tension is great,” Fukushima says. “In ‘Folding Cranes,’ we were very careful about each note and movement.”
The second track, “Avaloch,” is named after Avaloch Music Institute, a writer’s retreat in New Hampshire that ZT attended in 2022. One day during his stay, “there was this insane storm that came through, from nothingness to insanity, and then it went away.”
Said tempest inspired an immersive composition. “This prettiness, and then there’s this insanity that hits and eventually kind of drips away,” is how ZT characterizes “Avaloch.” “And you’re back to something similar to where you were before, but maybe in a different place.”
The title of “705” reflects the literal time that Fukushima finished the composition, ahead of a 9:00 gig. As the bassist explains, he bombed through it ahead of a last-minute booking at New York City’s legendary 55 Bar, which sadly closed in 2022.
“It’s quite beautiful to include that spontaneity on this record,” ZT says. “Thinking about it as an asset, as opposed to a drawback.”
“Hang in the Air” marks the smashing debut of Mike Stern on On Becoming. “I wanted to dedicate this song to Mike himself,” Fukushima says. “Whenever I ask him, ‘How are you?’ he says ‘Hanging in there.’” Fukushima syllabically flipped the phrase into what became the title.
Concerning his interplay with Stern on “Hang in the Air,” ZT notes that the dulcimer and guitar occupy the same register. “We were trying to basically make a new instrument that maybe has the attack and punchiness of the dulcimer, but coupled with the sustain of the guitar,” he says.
“Tsumamiori” is titled after the Japanese word for “rabbit ear folds”, in reflection of On Becoming’s origami-centric album art; the tune captures the album’s modus operandi.
“There was no real intention behind it other than being in the moment,” ZT says. “The song has three distinct sections of sharp, muted, syncopated sounds, and then in the middle, it blossoms and expands — which is relevant to an origami fold.”
Fukushima wrote “Azures” about seven years ago, and admits it’s on the difficult side to execute rhythm-wise. “It’s a little harder, as the meter is regularly changing,” he says. “But once Antonio joined the project, I thought this would be a great addition to the record."
“Azures” didn’t just present a rhythmic challenge; it presents a rapprochement between the East and West; the subdivided meters remind ZT of Balkan music. “The pressure to perform this challenging song pushes boundaries and gives the band fresh and challenging ideas,” he says. “We’re all kind of jostling for position.”
“Still” was written as a dedication to ZT’s guru, Pandit Shivkumar Sharma, who passed away in 2022; he was a santoor maestro, a pioneer of the instrument, and a close associate of George Harrison. The dulcimerist says he tried to incorporate his “teachings of patience and stillness, and find intention with every single note.”
“The Wall” presents an arresting vocal performance from vocalist Priya Darshini, who is married to ZT. Therein, Darshini uses the Indian technique of sargam — defined as singing the notes of a composition in unison sans words, similar to Western solfege.
“This piece is already quite difficult to execute on a percussion instrument,” ZT says. “The fact that she was able to mirror my playing as a vocalist is really remarkable.”
“Kabuseori” was the final improvisation of the first day of recording; ZT characterizes it as “very small, simple chord changes… letting the swelling of the group sound take over.”
“My job was to create a space for the band to shine and create without secular concerns,” says producer Guy Eckstine, who has worked with Herbie Hancock, Chris Botti and Wayne Shorter, among others.
Listening to the astonishing On Becoming, it’s clear that he — and House of Waters — have utterly fulfilled this mission.
For On Becoming
CRAIG L. BYRD
"You don’t often find a hammered dulcimer and six-string bass as featured instruments on a jazz album. But that’s precisely what Maz ZT and Moto Fukushima play as House of Waters." Check out the feature in the editors choice list here.
CONTEMPORARY FUSION REVIEWS
"I particularly enjoyed the hammered dulcimer from Max ZT on “Avaloch”, and have no doubt you will, too… the fluidity and open communication between the players makes this entire album one of the most memorable sound experiences you will ever enjoy." Check out the feature in the editors choice list here.
A CLOSER LISTEN
"Hammered dulcimer and six-string bass make a unique combination, and by inviting friends along for the ride, House of Waters has expanded upon their already-international sound." Read full article here.
"The group, which is a duo with Max ZT, is joined by drummer Antonio Sanchez, guitarist Mike Stern, and vocalist Priya Darshini as they render their unique blend of jazz and world music." Check out the full article here.
"On Becoming from House of Waters is a stunning album all around — an exquisite listening journey that takes you to places you’ve not previously imagined." Read full article here.
ALL ABOUT JAZZ
"Here they once again bring forth new and creative concepts that are freely exchanged and intertwined. New beginnings, drawn from multiple sources, as well as further exploration of the past, create the wonder, awe, and awareness of On Becoming. " Read full article here.
DEE DEE McNEIL
"This jazz music project is both unusual and original, prodding us to stretch the boundaries of creative music ocean wide, and travel on the waves to places we’ve never been." Read the full review here.