These trio of releases from pianist Satoko Fujii are exciting snapshots of a jazz daredevil in action.
By Steve Feeney
The music of composer/pianist Satoko Fujii is expansive, adventurous, and ever-evolving. With over 80 albums to her credit as a leader or co-leader, and with more seemingly always on the way, it’s risky to try to sum up her restless artistry at any particular moment. It will take jazz historians and critics considerable time to catch up with all she’s accomplished.
Fujii explores a number of musical formats, ranging from intense, solo piano examinations to experimental sessions with small groups and powerful, large ensemble exclamations. Blending open-ended jazz with touches of classical rigor along with elemental accents via rock and folk, Fujii is nothing if not dizzyingly eclectic.
New duo, orchestral, and solo releases provide an entry point to her creative vision at the moment.
Duet (Long Song Records) is from a 2015 live date recorded in a small chapel in Portland, Maine. Fujii engages with the highly inventive bassist Joe Fonda for a long piece called “Paul Bley.” A moving homage to the late, great pianist/composer, the players generate intense synergies that touch on the inner and outer reaches of ‘free jazz.’ The conversation is intuitive, at times seemingly telepathic — and it creates an enormous amount of drama and joy. In the piece, Fujii spends a lot of time working inside the piano, dampening strings, carefully drawing sounds out of the instrument’s metal and wood. These eerie scrapes and shimmering drones, added to Fonda’s arco moans and whispers, conjure up a mysterious soundscape, a soundtrack for a tour of a netherworld.
Fonda, a veteran of many risk-taking collaborations, including a long stint with Anthony Braxton, is a musician who not only overflows with ideas, but possesses the technique to make them concrete, musically. What’s more, he brings a rich, resonant tone to his work with Fujii; the result is that the pair pays loving tribute to Bley while both musicians stretch their distinctive musical imaginations.
A short trio piece is included, featuring Natsuki Tamura’s breathy trumpet work. But this tune is most notable for Fujii’s sonic image of a slow eruption; her fingers release notes like bubbling lava from a deep source within her instrument. Fonda adds a bit of flute to further broaden the recording’s palette.
Peace (Libra Records) is a wildly compelling disc from Fujii’s 15-member Orchestra Tokyo. Though she only conducts, it’s still a major statement. Billed as a tribute to the Orchestra’s Canadian, Tokyo-based guitarist (1977-2014) Kelly Churko, the album contains riveting passages of collective improvisation. Yet somehow it all manages to add up to an enthralling whole, the free-ranging compositions blending delicate interludes with finely constructed thematic variations.
On “2014,” the first and longest cut, Fujii’s gift for combining individual contributions with collective fury is on impressive display. The orchestra enters on a note of sprawling majesty, riding in over the drums with a muscular symphonic ease. A sputtering brass and reed passage introduces lyrical delicacy. A rumbling, tumbling percussion duet underpins the introduction of another high voltage orchestral theme, memorably accented by a dissonant fanfare. A more conventional riff emerges over a repeated rhythm that disassembles into an episode of flat-out expressionism, with the saxes eventually reaching for the stars. A bass-led final section seems to be an evocation of mourning.
“Jasper,” said to be about a pet cat in the album notes, evokes the slow-building spirituality of a mature Coltrane composition. The album’s title composition starts out as free jazz, adding structure through the choice of stark orchestral chords. “Peace” lets loose a no-holds-barred dynamism, perhaps a testimony to the unfettered power of music. The disc ends with “Beguine Nummer Eins,” a more traditionally arranged piece that suggests the large ensemble ventures of two Charlies: Mingus and Haden.
Invisible Hand (Cortez Sound), a two-disc solo piano set, comes from a Fujii date recorded last year at the Cortez club in Mito, Japan. Ranging from roughly 5 to 15 minutes in length each, the 10 original compositions draw on a wealth of approaches — no doubt the intent is to explore the pianist’s myriad musical strategies. The album would make a superb introduction to Fujii’s art, if only to disarm stereotypes: she’s more than a purveyor of postmodern Sturm und Drang. She can shape music of great beauty and mystery using no more than a handful of notes.
The title cut begins with the pianist probing deep inside her piano, establishing, through scrapes, taps, and hammerings, an ominous world beyond words. The rustle of sliding microtones, the striking of dead strings, sets up an atmosphere of fear. Moving back to the keyboard, Fujii serves up a theme whose congenial harmonic dimension can’t help but soothe. But the anxiety established at the opening is only partly relieved.
“Spring Storm,” with its evocation of dark and turbulent emotions, would be an excellent addition to a soundtrack for a contemporary film noir, a thriller on a grand scale. Fujii elicits a gamelan sound from inside the piano on “Floating,” the longest piece on the album. The piece is pensive and introspective at times, but a flowing lyrical line, embellished with splashes of harmony, eventually emerges. There’s a Spanish tinge to the sound here that might remind some listeners of the solo musings of Keith Jarrett or Paul Bley — but this brand of high wire boldness is very much Fujii’s own.
The edginess of “Hayese” offers a fine example of just how nimbly Fujii controls her obviously bountiful energy, while “Inori” serves up a thoughtful solemnity that “Gen Himmel” effectively expands on.
These trio of releases from Satoko Fujii are exciting snapshots of a daredevil in action, making music that is complex but, with patience, will amply reward open ears.
Steve Feeney is a Maine native and attended schools in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. He has a Master of Arts Degree in American and New England Studies from the University of Southern Maine. He began reviewing music on a freelance basis for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram in 1995. He was later asked to also review theater and dance. Recently, he has added BroadwayWorld.com as an outlet and is pleased to now contribute to Arts Fuse.