Satoko Fujii Turns 60!
Pianist-Composer Satoko Fujii Debuts a New Trio, This Is It!, on Her Latest CD 1538
Band features trumpeter Natsuki Tamura and percussionist Takashi Itani
“Fujii’s sound world is a kaleidoscope, and those familiar with her work have come to expect the unexpected. If any artist can be said to meet expectations by upsetting them, she’s one.”
― Mike Chamberlain, Coda
This Is It! evolved slowly over several years from Fujii’s New Trio with bassist Todd Nicholson and drummer Itani. After their 2013 debut CD, Spring Storm, Tamura joined them in concert to form Quartet Tobira, which recorded Yamiyo ni Karasu in 2014. With the departure of Nicholson, the remaining band members played as Tobira – 1 (Tobira Minus One), but as they continued to play, a distinctive trio identity emerged and Fujii rechristened them with an original name. “I always like to have smaller units that can play my compositions,” Fujii says. “I have led small groups like Satoko Fujii Quartet, Satoko Fujii Trio, ma-do, and others since the beginning of my career. Right now, this trio is the one I really like to work with, so I just named it This Is It!.”
Fujii wrote some material especially for the group, but most of the compositions come from what she calls her diary. “When I sit at the piano, I always compose for 15 minutes before I begin to practice. After doing this for more than 10 years, I have 12 books of written compositions. The short pieces in these books can help me to make long pieces. I often turn to my diary books when I start to compose something.”
As Tamura attests in his CD liner notes, these pieces are often fiendishly difficult to learn but they always have structure and flow that sound unforced and that open up new possibilities for improvisers. The trio fully inhabits Fujii’s pieces, taking different approaches to each one. The trust and confidence among them create deeply layered performances that blend melody, sound, and rhythm in endlessly inventive ways. For instance, they each twist and bend the melody of “Prime Number” as they solo, creating variations that build a unified performance. They take the high-intensity title track (1538 is the melting point of iron in degrees Celsius) in multiple directions as they improvise. Tamura shrieks and brays with tormented abstractions while Fujii alternates between high energy thundering and a melancholy lyricism, and Itani’s unmoored rhythms ebb and flow.
Some of the most otherworldly sounds to issue from a Satoko Fujii band are heard on this album (and that’s saying something). It’s often hard to tell who is making what sound. The opening of “Yozora” (which means “night sky” in Japanese) and the dreamy abstractions of “Riding on the Clouds” are bravura examples of the trio’s ability to manipulate pure sound and tone color into emotionally satisfying music. A highlight of “Swoop,” a feature for Itani, is the drummer’s virtuoso command of timbre and his sure sense of construction.
Fujii’s unprecedented birthday bash continues July 20 with Mizu (Long Song) featuring Fujii and bassist Joe Fonda in a follow-up to their acclaimed 2016 duo album. A concert recording by Quartet Mahobin, with Fujji, Tamura, saxophonist Lotte Anker, and Ikue Mori on laptop will follow in August and Fujii’s duet with Australian keyboardist Alister Spence in September. Later in the year, a new recording by Orchestra Tokyo and the debut of a new piano trio with bassist Ksawery Wójciński and drummer Ramon Lopez will arrive. More surprises and delights will be in store as a year of unforgettable musical riches concludes.
Drummer Takashi Itani plays everything from jazz (Max Roach was an early inspiration) to folk music, to rock. He’s been a sideman with a truly bewildering range of musicians, including singer-songwriter Yoshio Hayakawa; new wave rock guitarist Masahide Sakuma; singer-actor Hiroshi Mikami; Michiro Endo, front man of the influential punk band The Stalin; West coast jazz saxophonist Ted Brown; and best-selling Japanese American pop star Hikaru Utada. In addition he has performed with some of Japan’s most prominent poets, including Mizuki Misumi, Shuntaro Tanikawa, Gozo Yoshimasu, and the late Takaaki Yoshimoto.
Japanese trumpeter and composer Natsuki Tamura is internationally recognized for his unique musical vocabulary blending extended techniques with jazz lyricism. This unpredictable virtuoso “has some of the stark, melancholy lyricism of Miles, the bristling rage of late ’60s Freddie Hubbard and a dollop of the extended techniques of Wadada Leo Smith and Lester Bowie,” observes Mark Keresman of JazzReview.com. Throughout his career, Tamura has led bands with radically different approaches. On one hand, there are avant rock jazz fusion bands like his quartet. In contrast, Tamura has focused on the intersection of folk music and sound abstraction with Gato Libre since 2003. The band’s poetic, quietly surreal performances have been praised for their “surprisingly soft and lyrical beauty that at times borders on flat-out impressionism,” by Rick Anderson in CD Hotlist. In addition, Tamura and pianist (and wife) Satoko Fujii have maintained an ongoing duo since 1997. Tamura also collaborates on many of Fujii’s projects, from quartets and trios to big bands. As an unaccompanied soloist, he’s released three CDs, including Dragon Nat (2014).
Critics and fans alike hail pianist and composer Satoko Fujii as one of the most original voices in jazz today. She’s “a virtuoso piano improviser, an original composer and a bandleader who gets the best collaborators to deliver," says John Fordham in The Guardian. In concert and on more than 80 albums as a leader or co-leader, she synthesizes jazz, contemporary classical, avant-rock, and Japanese folk music into an innovative music instantly recognizable as hers alone. Over the years, Fujii has led some of the most consistently creative ensembles in modern improvised music, including her trio with bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Jim Black, the Min-Yoh Ensemble, and an electrifying avant-rock quartet featuring drummer Tatsuya Yoshida of The Ruins. Her ongoing duet project with husband Natsuki Tamura released their sixth recording, Kisaragi, in 2017. “The duo's commitment to producing new sounds based on fresh ideas is second only to their musicianship,” says Karl Ackermann in All About Jazz. Aspiration, a CD by an ad hoc band featuring Wadada Leo Smith, Tamura, and Ikue Mori, was released in 2017 to wide acclaim. “Four musicians who regularly aspire for greater heights with each venture reach the summit together on Aspiration,” writes S. Victor Aaron in Something Else. She records infrequently as an unaccompanied soloist, but Solo (Libra), the first of her 12 birthday-year albums, led Dan McClenaghan to enthuse in All About Jazz, that the album “more so than her other solo affairs—or any of her numerous ensembles for that matter—deals in beauty, delicacy of touch, graceful melodicism.” As the leader of no less than five orchestras in the U.S., Germany, and Japan, Fujii has also established herself as one of the world’s leading composers for large jazz ensembles, leading Cadence magazine to call her, “the Ellington of free jazz.”