Jazz Album Review: Two More Adventurous Discs from the Inexhaustible Satoko Fujii

By Steve Feeney 

There’s no doubt that the Japan-born composer/pianist/bandleader Satoro Fujii is one of the most prolific recording artists of her time.

Satoko Fujii/Joe Fonda, Four (Long Song Records)

Satoko Fujii/Tatsuya Yoshida, Toh-Kichi: Baikamo (Libra)

Satoko Fuji. Photo: Byran Murray.

Why have I written about Satoko Fujii as much as I have?  Could it be because I love to use the word indefatigable? Perhaps. Or, maybe it’s because she’s so good…and indefatigable.

There’s no doubt that the Japan-born composer/pianist/bandleader is one of the most prolific recording artists of her time. Since I first heard about her in the ’90s, Fujii has produced dozens of solo, duo, trio, quartet, and large ensemble discs (many on her own label). To celebrate her 60th birthday, Fujii released one disc a month last year. And, while she doesn’t appear to be trying to replicate that impressive feat this year, it is clear she could do so if she wanted.

While I was digging in to start writing about Four, Fujii’s latest duet release with bassist Joe Fonda, another new duo disc arrived. So, with the assent of the Arts Fuse‘s esteemed editor, I am including in this review Toh Kichi: Baikamo, a rambunctious set of duets with Fujii and drummer Tatsuya Yoshida. Let’s see if I can get this two-fer verdict done before a new large ensemble disc, known to be in the pipeline, rolls in.

The Fujii/Fonda disc reconfirms how comfortably the thick and rich bass work of Fonda surrounds and supports Fujii’s sparkling interjections and extended, probing flourishes. All too often duet partners in jazz step all over each other and then call it dancing. These two generate a vibrant musical bond that lasts over an extended period of time. It’s always a challenging but rewarding excursion when they perform together, which is most likely why they continue to work together. They’ve both recognized that they have a good thing going.

“Painted by Moonlight,” the first track, quickly establishes the pair’s synchronicity and natural syncopation. They take up a theme that flows spontaneously at first, but then double back to reflect on it. The brief “Diamonds in the Rough” gives us Fonda switching to arco technique in order to provide a translucent reverie to which Fujii adds crystalline facets. Fonda expands the sonic palette again with wood flute ruminations on “Gift from Billy,” while Fujii works the inside of her piano.

The sustained power of the players is at full intensity on “The Wind As It Bends.” Fujii pushes against boundaries until Fonda pulls her back to a place they can explore together. “The Stars in Complete Darkness,” is a lengthy (22:09) trip into hard-won realms of spiky, abstract confluence. But wait, another voice emerges amid the journey. It’s Fujii’s mate and musical partner Natsuki Tamura, adding sputtering trumpet commentary and brassy outbursts on top of the pianist’s increasingly agitated clusters and runs. Tamura settles the proceedings down a bit with an interlude of breathy microtones that Fonda, back on flute, rushes to contextualize. When Fujii reenters, we find ourselves in a new place — a location as richly lyrical as these folks are likely to get. Enticing harmonies arrive, with the pianist and bassist reaching lyrical heights before bells and scrapings suggest the appeal of moving toward another arcane musical convergence, such as those intimated in the last cut, called “We Meet As 3.”

It had been 15 years since Fujii had recorded with drummer Tatsuya Yoshida under the collective name Toh-Kichi. Yoshida is known in progressive music circles for his collaborations with John Zorn and many others. On Baikamo, he and Fujii reestablish a shared commitment — to raucous, let-it-all-out music-making.

Sixteen relatively short pieces find the pair mixing new compositions with improvisational outbursts. All the efforts exude considerable power. Yoshida is obsessed with energy, and Fujii adds high-speed drama on such pieces as her “Rolling Down.” Yoshida’s “No Reflection” builds off a piano vamp and then releases percussive tension at odd intervals.

The title piece, by Fujii, opens with the drummer emphatically searching for the semblance of a groove. The pianist offers rippling figures that swell and recede. The drummer’s “Laughing Birds” alternately frames and deconstructs a rather sweet theme voiced by Fujii. Yoshida’s “Climber’s High” is a sort of fugue for those who enjoy being oxygen-deprived. The pianist’s “Ice Age” is chilling, featuring weird vocalizations and, forsaking the keyboard again, Fujii extracts assorted spooky sounds from within the piano.

Both of these duo discs testify to Fujii and friends’ ongoing commitment to the adventurous end of the creative music spectrum. The album with Fonda is perhaps a bit warmer, which may lend itself more to repeated listens. But, if you like hard-hitting percussion, the recording with Yoshida will warrant revisits.

There, I finished this piece without a new Fujii disc arriving.  Something tells me, though, to file it soon.

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 The Arts Fuse.

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