Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings

Satoko Fujii
Libra Records 201-046

Satoko Fujii Orchestra Berlin
Ninety-Nine Years
Libra Records 211-047

Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York
Libra Records 214-044

Atody Man
Circum-Libra 204

In Japan, one’s 60th birthday is an occasion for reflecting upon one’s life and achievements. To celebrate reaching this milestone, known as kanreki, the ever prolific pianist and composer Satoko Fujii decided to release a new album each month in 2018. (Fujii celebrated the 60th birthday of her trumpeter husband Natsuki Tamura on Eto, by her New York orchestra.) Featuring releases by both long-standing groups and new projects, this year’s dozen albums showcase the depth and breadth of Fujii’s musical vision and ceaseless journey for new modes of expression.

Solo – 2018’s first offering – was recorded live in concert in Japan in July, 2017. The impeccably recorded recital is one of her more accessible albums, featuring introspective lyricism, moments of unadorned and delicate quietude, and a restrained experimentalism that offers a number of surprises without overwhelming the overall aesthetic. Throughout, the music flows completely unimpeded as if Fujii let every inhibition go prior to taking the stage. The performance opens with “Inori,” which, in Fujii’s use of rubato and arpeggiated runs, is in some ways reminiscent of nineteenth-century romantic works, albeit with occasional flashes of tasty dissonance. On most pieces Fujii spends some time playing inside the piano, drawing out myriad timbres and sounds. “Ninepin” is marked by a long, metallic rasping that introduces muted bell-like figures that sound similar to small gamelan gongs or parts of John Cage’s prepared piano sonatas. “Gen Himmel” features a series of call and responses between a number of different colors and her crystalline piano touch, from short and percussive staccato flourishes to sustain-pedaled left hand block chords, lightly plucked high strings to delicately placed single notes. The set closes with Jimmy Giuffre’s composition “Moonlight,” an incredibly quiet and austere piece that rarely gets above a pianissimo. The moments of silence compels the listener to become a part of the music and to enter Fujii’s world – which on this evening was one of dynamic variety, from stillness to fury, lyricism to abstraction, mysterious to the familiar.

Satoko Fujii                                                                                                               ©Bryan Murray

One of Fujii’s most admirable qualities is her fearless willingness to take risks. She and Tamura often go just about as out as out can get, as demonstrated on their recent duo album Kasaragi, on which they abstain from playing any conventional trumpet or piano sounds. It’s difficult and abstract, and sometimes it doesn’t work for me, but I applaud the duo’s unabashed experimentalism and inventiveness. Among her more adventurous projects, which is also my personal favorite, is Kaze, a cooperative quartet composed of Tamura and the French trumpet/drummer pair of Christian Pruvost and Peter Orins. One of Kaze’s goals, it seems, is to tease out all the textural, timbral, and compositional possibilities the instrumentation and sensibilities of each of its members allow for. Sometimes they attempt this all in one piece. On the group’s fifth album Atody Man, this method becomes especially apparent on Fujii’s composition “Moving.” Opening with Orins’ strong and firm drum solo (his kick drum and floor toms carry thudding heft), the seventeen minute epic includes playing by Fujii that is alternatingly thunderous, oblique, manic, and unassuming; angular composed tunes; and a trumpet duo who are as comfortable weaving quiet melodies around each other as they are blowing gurgled and smeared white noise. And given the huge range of sounds Tamura and Pruvost conjure from their horns, it wouldn’t be surprising for listeners to confuse them with electronics (at the top of “Méta-Blizzard,” is it trumpet, a synth patch, or a squeaky dog toy?). The album’s highlight is “Morning Glow,” on which Fujii opens with a pastoral solo that depicts a soft morning. But as the piece progresses, the morning glow turns into a day dominated by storm clouds and windblown detritus scarring the air. The undulating, rolling melody for Fujii and the trumpets is rapturous, and Orins’ assertive drum solo that follows points to the coming maelstrom, which appears right at the end and is unexpectedly cut off and tucked away by the main theme. By the time the listener reaches the title track – the album’s final cut – they are already over an hour in, which for music this demanding is a little too much. Nonetheless, Atody Man is impeccable in its execution, rewarding for its variety, and relentless in its pursuit for the new and confounding.

Fujii’s New York, Tokyo, and Berlin large ensembles convey yet another element of Fujii’s voice. Ninety-Nine Years by Orchestra Berlin – at ten players it’s less of an orchestra than it is a large combo – features a mix of short, catchy tunes; marauding blunt force tutti horn lines that twist and tumble; humor and whimsy; inventive solos; and sympathetic duo and trio playing. It opens with “Unexpected Incident,” a piece full of snarl and swagger that’s marked by fierce solos from tenor saxophonists Matthias Schubert and Gebhard Ullmann, trumpeter Lina Allemano, and trombonist Matthias Müller. The title track is a feature for the soloists more so than the ensemble (which doesn’t appear until ten minutes in), with bassist Jan Roder, bari player Paulina Owczarek, and Ullmann turning in solos that are each complex, raw, and sensitive. The dark and sinister “Oops!” is a standout, as it strikes a perfect balance between composition and solos, the individual and the collective, freedom and guidelines. The corkscrew head is a smack to the jaw, and Fujii’s steamroller background horn parts and Michael Griener’s and Peter Orins’ hyperactive drumming halfway through whip trumpeter Richard Koch into a frenzy. It’s highly affecting. Listening to Ninety-Nine Years is an exercise in expecting the unexpected. Like most of Fujii’s orchestra albums (at least ones I have heard; there are several I have not), one needs to set aside expectations of what a large ensemble album should or might be. It is often impossible to know when the ensemble will come in or what it will play (The tune? Backgrounds? A brush stroke or two of color? Will it play something new or reference what came before?). In this way, Ninety-Nine Years is a perfect expression of a key element of Fujii’s aesthetic: it’s unpredictable, at times surprising, and a puzzle that may not have a complete solution.

On Fukushima – which is not officially part of Fujii’s kanreki celebration, as it came out in December, 2017 – Fujii, in her words, “seeks to convey the depth of this emotional experience and [her] own internal response to the accident.” Showcasing many of New York’s heavy hitters, the nearly hour long composition is primarily comprised of a number of solos interspersed by ensemble themes and backgrounds. The music is not programmatic; one does not hear the earthquake, witness the tidal wave sweeping lives away, or anticipate the meltdown of the Daiichi reactor. The first theme – held down by Ches Smith’s backbeat and Stomu Takeishi’s powerful, mineshaft-deep bass – is a menacing, lumbering, heavy line and representative of Fujii’s ensemble writing: thick, homophonic parts that frame and set the tone for the solos to come. And solos there are many, and they are excellent. From Dave Ballou’s plaintive and at times hushed lamentation and Nels Cline’s effects-laden wizardry to Ellery Eskelin’s sly, slippery tenor and Andy Laster’s shredding bari, the solos set the tone more than the ensemble sections, especially considering that ten minutes might pass without more than a few people playing at once. Fukushima ends on a poignant note with a brief quasi-chorale that is quite pretty, if not a bit heartbreaking. As a whole, sometimes it’s difficult to see how the individual ensemble parts and themes fit together, as the internal logic is not readily apparent. Perhaps, though, this is a perfect result given the magnitude of the Fukushima disaster; how does one make sense of and process an event that exceeds the knowable?


The upcoming docket for Fujii’s 2018 marathon includes a duo album with Australian pianist Alister Spence; a trio featuring Tamura and percussionist Takashi Itani; an album by Orchestra Tokyo; and a one-off trio date with bassist Joe Fonda and Italian soprano saxophonist Gianni Mimmo. And those albums only take us through the end of summer. Stay tuned and dig in.
—Chris Robinson

New World Records

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