BY ZIVIT SHLANK Guitarist, composer, educator and 2011 Guggenheim fellow David “Fuze” Fiuczynski is the quintessence of authentic artistry. The self-proclaimed “black, funky, German expressionist,” by his own admission, tried tirelessly to fit into pre-ordained boxes early on. However, he soon realized that the music he was pursuing, despite feeling the opposite, didn’t exactly have the widest appeal. No matter, that hasn’t stopped him and in fact, it further fuels and intensifies his fire. He moved to NYC post-collegiate in the early 90s, and went on to record and perform with countless artists across the musical spectrum including John Medeski, Meshell NdegéOcello, Bernie Worrell, Steve Coleman and Philadelphia’s own Jamaaladeen Tacuma, among others. His most prolific baby to date, Screaming Headless Torsos, demands an adventurous spirit and a fearless, headfirst plunge into the unknown sonic stratosphere. Not the easiest plunge to make at first but once you do, you’re hooked, seduced by its bold and dynamic hypnosis. Interestingly enough, there are some parallels between Fuze and American Black Rock icon Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix, too, tried to fit into the box of the R&B scene, aka the Chittlin Circuit, in early 60s Nashville. He outgrew that and quickly realized that he wasn’t destined to play by anyone’s rules but his own. He moved to NYC in ’64, played sideman to the likes of Little Richard and the Isley Brothers. Two years later, the The Jimi Hendrix Experience was born and the rest is history. Call it divine intervention, but it seems as though it was serendipitously written in the stars that the worlds of Fuze and Hendrix would ultimately collide. Brace yourself, Philadelphia, and prepare to be electrified by Fuze and the Screaming Headless Hendrix, along with the Planet Microjam Institute Ensemble, as they re-imagine the life and music of Jimi Hendrix at the Painted Bride Arts Center tonight at 8pm! Phawker recently got on the line with Fuze to gain more insight.
PHAWKER: Let’s go back to those early days with the guitar. When did music cross that line from just listening to a learning experience? Who or what inspired you to make music?
DAVID: I started on piano, but I didn’t like it. When I was 13, my mom said, “you should play an instrument” as a way to broaden my horizons, she didn’t necessarily want me to have a career in music. We made a deal where I’d pick the instrument and the teacher. That’s when I started playing guitar and back then, I was happy if I could play the chords or a simple tune like “House Of The Rising Sun”. I was lucky enough to have been in a class with a guy whose older brother was a guitarist, this guy named Markus Wienstroer, one of the few people in Germany who’s making a living as a studio sideman. This is where I can say one teacher can really make a difference. I went to his house, he fixed up my guitar, and then he played me some bebop and I was just hooked. I started taking lessons with him and I’d leave after each one, I’d bike home with my guitar, and my head was filled with music. Early on, it wasn’t so much about being a musician then, but realizing that I just had a different way of listening to music. I would buy one record because of a good melody, another record because of a cool harmony and another because of a cool rhythm or style. Then I’d always be curious and think ‘well, what if I mixed all these elements together?’ I would talk to friends like this, and I just assumed everyone listened to music like that…but I quickly learned that I was the odd man out. As far as taking the step to become more than just a listener but a maker of the music, it wasn’t until fairly late, like around 19 or 20. I moved back to the states from German to attend Hampshire College in Massachusetts doing liberal arts, not really specializing in anything, but I ended up only taking music classes. I thought to myself ‘well, if this is what it is, then I might as well go for it.’ So I transferred to the New England Conservatory.
PHAWKER: Talk about taking the plunge. That’s a highly competitive and intense environment! How did you set yourself apart?
DAVID: I went to the Third Stream Program, which is now called the Contemporary Improv Program at the New England Conservatory. It was a small, experimental program based on ear training and free improv. I did not go there with the intention of studying classical music, but what was so cool about Third Stream was that it was about mixing music, which I was already doing, so it was a really good fit. In that respect, I already stood out, but on the other hand, there were a lot of things that I was way far behind on so again, I was the odd man out. Many students there knew how to play, but didn’t know what they wanted to play. I already had ideas of what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know how to do it. While I was there, I noticed that I was either on a different path or coming from a different place.
PHAWKER: Was it through the faculty that you made the connections that led you to the folks you recorded with early on such as John Medeski and Meshell Ndegeocello?
DAVID: In the last 2 years I was there, I was very lucky to start working with some of my teachers and they took me on some little tours. They included George Russell, who wrote the Lydian Chromatic Concept, and Bob Moses, a great drummer who played so sublimely on an amazing record by Pat Metheny called Bright Size Life. So they took me under their wing. The guy who got me really connected was drummer Ben Perowsky. We jammed a bit, told me he had some gigs in New York and so I went there and played a bit. One thing led to the next and I met Billy Hart, met his band…it didn’t exactly snowball because I went through some pretty rough times. Once I was in New York I really hit the street running and networked. It was through the Black Rock Coalition that I met NdegéOcello. The first CD I ever recorded was with John Medeski, and I met him through the conservatory.
PHAWKER: That’s a pretty sweet connection because man, Medeski Martin & Wood started making a name for themselves in, like, 1991.
DAVID: Yeah…yeah that’s the big difference between John and myself: they hit the road and I stayed in New York. Wow, what a BIG mistake that was! They knew from the getgo what the deal was, so kudos to them.
PHAWKER: Hey staying in NY turned out to be fruitful for you, it ultimately led to the formation of your baby, the musical laboratory that is Screaming Headless Torsos. Where the heck did the name come from? And with a name like that, what kind of music were you set on making?
DAVID: Well…let’s just say you hang out in college, you have a drink or two with your buddies shooting the breeze. We were joking about bad names and I don’t know that just came up. And I thought, ‘Hmmm I could use that one.’ Not to jump forward, but I’ve been doing a lot of microtonal stuff, and I hear microtonal stuff even when it was not microtonal. And it all comes back to again, drummer Bob Moses. He said to me ‘you know, sometimes I do something, and I realize this isn’t just me…there’s something else going on. I feel like sometimes the music picks you.’ And I have to say in this case I think maybe the name and the music picked me. I can’t say I’m 100% sure that maybe it wasn’t the other way around.
PHAWKER: There’s a quote of yours from an article you wrote for Fusion Magazine that struck me. Regarding the music you’re trying to make is ‘a sound that is raw, but simple, with rich ingredients.’ Tell me what you mean by that.
DAVID: The older I get, the less patience I have for the normal things musicians fail at. There are plenty of musicians who can clearly play, but I just don’t have time for the ego. I hate overplaying. I’m not going to say I want people to play quiet, and especially with band called Screaming Headless Torsos, quiet is not in the vocabulary. I’m referring to those that can’t modify their volume and play with dynamics. The greatest lesson for me came from the band the Bad Brains. I mean, these guys are really harsh! I saw them a lot in Boston and I’ve seen plenty of great reggae and punk bands, but here was a band that played some of the most vicious stuff I’ve ever heard. For a tune or two, they’d play some roots reggae stuff and everybody would chill out. Then they would play more punk and just rile everyone up. To me, that was, in a way, more extreme than hardcore or death metal bands. Here, they are hitting on 2 extremes: the really wild crazy stuff and the really chill. So when it got really crazy again, it would seem even crazier, and when it got really quiet and chill, it would seem even chiller. That blew me away. I’ve done things where composers try to be really difficult and so cerebral and it’s not happening. For me, it needs to be simple and it needs to work. I love painting, I love colors, and especially with world music elements mixing in, I think of the painter Gauguin. With his work, you can really see western and eastern elements and so-called nonwestern elements mixed in that resulted in one amazing colorful painting after another. I think he really hit on something, which I strongly relate to with my music. People really didn’t appreciate Gauguin’s work during his lifetime, but he’s considered to be one of the top 10 hits today. I certainly that doesn’t happen with me!
PHAWKER: You’ve got an upcoming show at the Painted Bride, a tribute to the life and music of the incomparable Jimi Hendrix, to honor what would’ve been his 70th birthday this year. You even renamed your group Screaming Headless Hendrix. In 27 years, he left an indelible mark and a body of work loved the world over that set the bar for musicians, especially guitarists. You want to honor the man not by copying him, but by interpreting his music in a way that utilizes the musical concepts and original ideas you’ve learned and created over the years. Intimidating to say the least! How do you approach a project of this magnitude?
DAVID: Well, first off I wanted to call it ‘Screaming Headless Hendrix From The East’…but that was too long. It’s very intimidating and very exciting. The singer from Screaming Headless Torsos, Freedom Bremner, is going to be there. The band backing us up will be the Planet Microjam Institute Ensemble with special guest, drummer Kenwood Dennard. What that means is there’s going to be a lot of world music influences. Our piano player is this guy from Turkey named Utar Dundarartun, so there’s also going to be use of some Arabic and Turkish tunings and scales. The reason why we’re doing this goes back to an amazing experience I had in 1992. I was invited by some players from LA, New York and Paris to rehearse in Morocco with a backup band that played behind 12 or so Moroccan folk groups. We played at the World Fair at the Seville in Spain and it was an amazing experience. Over the course of those 10 days or so, for some reason I don’t maybe it was because I played guitar, but the Moroccan musicians told me that Jimi Hendrix came to Morocco. They kept saying that to me over and over. That planted the seed. What you’re going to hear on February 4th is not a tribute to a dead Hendrix. Sure, his music lives on even though he’s no longer alive, but instead, I would like to pay tribute to a possible living Hendrix! A fictional Hendrix that is 70, retired, living in Casablanca and every now and then, he goes down to the old Medina to rock the Casbah! The show is not necessarily going to be Moroccan, but there will be a lot of Middle Eastern influences in some of the pieces. I would never just do a tribute just to do one. Sure, I’ve done many tributes like one in honor of Stevie Wonder through the Black Rock Coalition. However, this is exciting because instead of looking back, it’s like looking forward and asking, ‘Well, What would Jimi do if he had retired in Morocco? What would the music sound like?’ To me, that’s exciting!
PHAWKER: The seed was planted some 20 years ago, seems as if you were pre-destined to do this…does it feel that way to you?
DAVID: No, I haven’t been struck by lightening yet! But seriously like I said, sometimes the music just picks you. I can’t say with 100% certainty, but let’s hope it is. Let’s hope some folks show up!