Satoko Fujii Turns 60!
Composer-pianist Satoko Fujii Unearths Hidden Gems from Her Daily Composition Diary
Classical Pianist Yuko Yamaoka Brings Fujii’s Compositional Musings to Life
The pianist’s compositional talents certainly match her improvisational ones…”
― Andy Hamilton, Jazz Review (UK)
“Fujii is simply one of the most important composers of our time: she gives new meaning to the term ‘panstylistic.”
― Alan Young, Lucid Culture
Jazz critics voted Fujii into four categories of the 66th Annual DownBeat International Critics Poll in 2018 as one of the world’s top pianists, composers, arrangers and big band leaders
Every time Fujii sits down to practice piano, she begins by practicing composing for 15 minutes. She’s done this since 2005. Some of these exercises grew into compositions that she recorded. For example, “052013” became “Ichigo Ichie,” the title track of her 2015 Orchestra Berlin CD. “012707” evolved into “Tokyo Rush Hour,” recorded on her 2008 duet CD with Natsuki Tamura, Chun. But the vast majority of these hundreds of short pieces simply accumulated on her piano top and in boxes.
At the urging of her husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, Fujii sat down and reviewed the first ten years of her diary compositions, each one identified by the date on which it was written. From this vast trove of music she selected highlights for classical pianist Yuko Yamaoka to perform. Fujii has known Yamaoka since her student days at New England Conservatory and enlisted her to perform on Fujii’s New York Orchestra debut South Wind.
The clarity of Yamaoka phrasing lets Fujii’s creativity shine through. She highlights the tensions created by the unusual bass note rhythm of “091209,” and the smooth, almost classical, counterpoint of “091309.” She effortlessly follows the flowing logic of the single line in “032313” and the unexpected melodic turns of the lovely “123106.” Her bright, nuanced touch gives shades of feeling to each miniature, whether it’s the wistful lilt of a waltz in “050509” or the sensual slink of the tango in “041514.” The longest of the compositions lasts a mere two minutes, which makes the album something like a book of aphorisms—the compositions’ brevity is actually the soul of their appeal.
“I still continue composing like this everyday,” Fujii says. “It is now more like my life! I think doing it has helped me expand my ideas. I don’t want to repeat myself; I don’t want to make the same music over and over. Writing everyday makes me push myself to think of new ideas. But at the same time, I have found I do have a style, I discovered that even new ideas have something in them that makes them sound like mine. Sometimes I don’t know if this is good or bad. But Natsuki thinks this is good because it shows I have some originality.”
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.”