Satoko Fujii is a prolific pianist from Japan who has led over 20 different groups over the past two decades since her initial venture as a leader, 1996's duo with Paul Bley"Something About Water (Libra 1996)"
Fujii was born in Tokyo in 1958 and began playing piano at four. She was classically trained and turned to jazz at age 20, continuing her studies at Boston’s Berklee College of Music in the mid 1980s, and then after six years in Japan, at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where she learned from modernists like George Russell, Cecil McBee, and Paul Bley.
As a composer of modern music she is not one whose style is easily pinned down in a few words, nor can one simply describe her as a leader and leave it there, since she has led such a range of ensembles: Orchestra Tokyo Big Band, Ma-Do quartet, the Min-Yoh Ensemble, Satoko Fujii Four with husband a trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, a number of piano trios, Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York, and many other combinations. Her music has a wide range of sounds, moods, and instruments, such that each group brings its own imprimature to the settings, and such that Fujii has different compositional objectives for each. She therefore can only be viewed as a wildly diverse and spectacularly creative soul, one whose music never compromises her vision for each of her outings.
This is not to say that I universally like everything Fujii produces, which would be difficult given her output of nearly 100 sessions as a leader with such an array of talents. As an international musician with feet in New York, Berlin, Tokyo, and across the globe, her music spans blends all forms of jazz with classical music, rock, and traditional Japanese music into a singular style of her own. It's hard to get a handle on her works and to describe them fully, as they are mercurial, shifting rapidly in tempo, dynamics, and mood; and she can hit the extremes from composed lyrical music to truly avant garde music in a heartbeat. Her music is sometimes composed jazz with improvisations, sometimes free jazz with all that that suggests. With each new recording or new band, she explores new aspects of her art. I put together a list of adjectives that came to mind as I listened:
Quiet the list. It demonstrates the extremes within the recordings-- delicate and explosive, tempestuous and lyrical, intense and pensive, and so on.
This post describes two new CDs: "Spring Storm" (Libra 2013) by the Satoko Fujii New Trio, with Todd Nicholson on bass and Takashi Itani on drums; and " Time Stands Still" (Libra 2013) by the Satoko Fujii Ma-Do featuring husband Natsuki Tamura on trumpet, Fujii on piano, Akira Horikoshi on drums, and the late Norikatsu Koreyasu on bass. With the passing of Koreyasu, whom the music pivoted upon in Fujii's compositional eyes, this will be the last recording of the Mah-Do.
This is not music for everyone. It is challenging, it can be intense, and it is certainly not traditional. It's right out there on the edge of my Oscar-Shipp piano trio scale (see post of April 22), and is tright there on the edge. It reminds me of Shipp, but also Paul Bley, Myra Melford, or Marilyn Crispell when they are also playing at the edge; that is to say, when they are not playing in the ECM or Trio M mode. This is avant garde, highly individualistic and impressionistic music, heavy on the drama and emotions as expressed through the three instruments working with and against each other.
"Spring Storm" is the perfect title for the music on track one of the CD of the same name. The song begins slowly with some ominous sounds as the storm approaches, it builds as the storm arrives, and then it explodes with the heavy drum set and cymbals like thunder and lightening, the tinkling of piano keys and chimes like raindrops, and the fiery continuation of the piano theme. It is always harmonic, never dissonant, and smoothly melodic even as the storm roars all around, a sense that we are safe inside watching. And then it tapers down, the crashing subsides, the rain slows, and the music ends. Brilliant. As the CD continues each song has its nugget of beauty and originality, like the opening bass leading to a wonderous piano melody for "Convection" ,backed by a variety of sounds from the drummer; the speedy delivery and lovely bass interlude on "Fuki"; or the light and lovely sound of "Whirlwind" after so much tempestuous play.
I am not as fond of the Mah-Do work "Time Stands Still." which is a bit harder, a bit more avant garde. It begins with the squealing and sawing of strings and until the very lovely and clean trumpet solo begins after 3 1/2 minutes Track 1 is difficult for me. There is a very nice and fiery piano section as well, but the entire piece was a bit edgy for my taste. This pattern repeats in subsequent pieces, and at times there is the added sound of a growling and spitting trumpet.
And yet there are also lovely and lyrical parts by the piano and trumpet in the same pieces. I have to highlight "Set the Clock Back" as a more restful piece with each soloist having a really lovely and lyrical part to play, and the absolutely riveting and beautiful "Time Stands Still" that closes the set in a quiet and meditative way and which includes a lovely parting arco part by Koreyasu. This CD is more difficult but offers many beautiful sections along with some definitely interesting dynamic interplay by the four musicians.
Fujii continues to be a fascinating and individualistic musician and composer who's work certainly demands attention.