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. Max ZT (hammered dulcimer) and Moto Fukushima (6-string bass) are joined by Antonio Sanchez on drums, and they weave a tapestry of feelings that will soothe your soul.
It’s incredible to have a trio create such a richness in sound. Max can make his instrument sound like a harp or piano among other instruments and naturally as a dulcimer. Moto’s two-handed playing on the bass gives him astonishing range as well. And Antonio, new to the group on this recording, somehow takes their playing to another level. As if that weren’t enough, Priya Darshini elevates them ever further with her beautiful vocals on The Wall. Mike Stern, one of the world’s most acclaimed jazz guitarists joins on Hang In The Air.
I had the chance to talk with Max for this writeup and we covered a bunch of topics that you’ll see cited here. I’ll also be writing a follow-up article that covers “The Making of the Album ‘On Becoming’ and Next Up for House of Waters,” with that interview. Max described how the connection to Antonio was made thusly, “It’s interesting that each of our albums used different drummers. It’s a natural progression in that we were kind of world percussionish sound with like cajon and djembe and frame drums then eventually we wanted to get into larger drum set vibe. We were fine tuning that drum sound thinking Esperanza or Chick is kind of the sound we’re like with virtuosic bass and intriguing melodies and thought Pat Metheny sound that is what we’re very much in line with. We thought why not ask Antonio and it’s not unreasonable — so we met up with him and we really hit it off and really connected.”
House of Waters is the confluence of multiple streams. With immersive studies in India, Senegal, Japan, the Americas, and beyond, House of Waters has synthesized a new and unique sound. For sixteen years, Max ZT (hammered dulcimer) and Moto Fukushima (six-string electric bass) have carefully crafted a combined voice. Their rare instrumentation allows for the two prolific composers to create a distinct sound, and a compelling and captivating style. For On Becoming, they are joined by the masterful Antonio Sanchez on drums.
The trio offer virtuosic performances showcasing their creativity and curiosity both in their six compositions, as well as in three fully improvised additional pieces. With guest appearances by the iconic guitarist Mike Stern, and Grammy-Nominated vocalist Priya Darshini, On Becoming emphasizes the exploration of a sound, of a composition, and of a moment.
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.”
Max continued describing the recording process, “Our goal was we need to make a record for connection beyond the isolation of composition. So, we cut 11 improvisations during the recording process, and include three of them on this record. In terms of musicality the difference between this one and all the previous records previous is the conversation in our compositions and taking it to a whole different kind of space and say, ‘the purpose of the music is a conversation among our fellow musicians, and for listeners, the only real way to do that is to fully be in the a moment. And so that’s what these little improvisations are helpful for as we cut them throughout the recording process as a way to establish and help develop those conversations. Every single composition you hear on this record was a take that immediately followed an improv. We would have included more than the three here but couldn’t fit any more on the album so we’re considering putting out the other improvisations on our next record.”
House of Waters will be opening for Snarky Puppy again on their West Coast swing starting September 15th so do go see them if you have any chance at all. Let’s jump into my track-by-track coverage here.
Folding Cranes has Max opening first with a single note and then a swirling, repeating pattern. He’s joined by Moto playing some graceful notes and Antonio with some delicate waterfall percussive effects that relent into some running water ending. This is the first of the three improv tunes on the album.
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.”
Avaloch starts with Max playing a very melodic, soft opening accompanied by Moto actually sounding like a distant trumpet before settling in with a soothing bass line. Antonio has a great sense for the music, fitting in naturally considering his history of collaboration with Pat Metheny. In the last minute of the song Max takes a brief solo before Moto and Antonio reconnect.
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.”
705 starts soothingly with Moto taking the lead initially and before an effortless transition to Max. The pair have an amazing connection to have the timing and feel perfectly together. Moto takes a longer solo midway and Antonio’s soft tapping, and Max’s intermittent notes accent his humongous talent. The music is like a balm for your soul, so warm and comforting. The melody resumes midway at a more elevated energy level. Max takes the second half lead with Moto and Antonio coming in hot and closes out on fire.
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 features and starts with Mike Stern vocalizing guitar with Max mixing in sync with him for much of the opening. Stern takes an impeccable solo and can’t help but notice a Metheny-like sound naturally with Antonio’s influence. It’s another loose and free flowing tune with the Stern-Max combo sounding voice-like. Max has another light, scintillating solo. The fade close-out has Antonio with some soft chimes and Stern easing it down.
“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 has Moto starting some code like conversation with Antonio and then Max interjecting in their back and forth. It sounds like Max is playing pizzicato perhaps, if that’s even possible. Moto seems to steer the initial direction and midway the conversation is full blown three-way. Moto backs off for a bit and then Max sounds like he’s playing across the strings. Things quiet down and fade into a single ‘ting’ from Antonio. This is the second of the three improv tunes.
“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.”
Azures starts with Max playing mutes and Moto chords before Antonio comes through. This one is a Max driven tune with Moto as the foundation. Moto does have the initial solo near the midpoint, and it’s masterful. Max comes back to lead the melody. One thing about HoW tunes is how well they’re crafted such they have a distinctive story arc with a main theme encased around more free rein side journeys. This one in particular fits that bill.
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 is very quiet opening with a very light touch. In this one, Max’s instrument sounds particularly piano-like punctuated with harp trills. It has a bit of a waltz feel, very sensual. After a briefly quiet interlude, Max resumes with a comforting undulating feel. The baton is passed to Moto, and he plays a beautiful relaxing solo with interjections from both Max and Antonio. The trio resumes along the path. Max’s lead handiwork is superfast but gentle simultaneously. The closeout comes back effectively to the waltz-like theme.
“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 features Priya Darshini on vocals and she’s a showstopper. It’s the first time I can recall HoW with vocals and the song is probably my favorite on the album as well as the longest at a full 10 minutes.
There’s plenty of space for everyone to shine as Moto does with the first solo at the 2:45 mark. The video is a great display of listening between the players, with Antonio and Max providing minimal but effective interjections urging Moto on. The full band comes back reintroducing Priya’s (en)chanting vocals. Near the there’s a classic HoW breakdown where each player sporadically injects spice into the recipe. But the highlight is really Antonio establishing the base patterns for Max and Moto to react to. Finally, for the last section they return with the main melody and Priya reentering the race to the finish with mimicking Max’s instrument. Absolute stunner!
“The Wall” presents an arresting vocal performance from vocalist Priya Darshini. 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.”
Priya sounds to me like she’s vocalizing words, but Max explained that it’s actually a way of singing notes, like the English “DoReMi” etc. He continued, “it’s a type of chromaticism with a long tradition in light classical Indian music. This is obviously not pure Western or pure Indian classical music but is really something different. It’s kind of like a language and that’s how it’s used — there’s fluency involved, there’s grammar, there’s vocabulary and there’s the presentness of not thinking about where a verb goes in a sentence whether it’s before or after the preposition — you just have a little fluency in a language so like it’s not unreasonable to think about it those kinds of terms.
Kabuseori, the last improv starts with Max leading and Moto echoing him. I hear Antonio ever so faintly tapping and Moto actually sounding like two basses at once with sounding like a bowed upright. It’s hard to fathom what’s going on just by ear as it seems impossible it’s just a trio in parts. It drops off to Max playing a soft fade and Moto making wildlife sounds. All-in-all a great finish to the album.
“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.
Max ZT – hammered dulcimer
Moto Fukushima – 6-string bass
Antonio Sanchez – drums
Mike Stern, guitar
Priya Darshini, vocals