Satoko Fujii - Eto, Watershed and Rafale (2011)


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Our favorite avant gardist from Japan Satoko Fujii is at it again, releasing at once a new batch of records of distinct character. Each are performed by bands she formed whose members render her boundless musical vision within their own voices, ranging from the fifteen member Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York to two quartets with odd make-ups (Min-Yoh and Kaze). She and her husband Natsuki Tamura have together released twenty-seven records since 1997 under their own imprint, and numerous more from other labels like Enja and Tzadik.

The incredible pace of productivity is fueled by an endless wellspring of ideas from the mind of Fujii, who challenges listeners to follow her down dark, narrow alleys rarely taken, with the promise of a rich audial experience on the other side. If she's ever failed to deliver on that promise, I haven't heard it yet. And after listening to these three new offerings from her, I still haven't:

Satoko Fujii Orchestra New YorkETO

“Eto" is the Chinese zodiac, a twelve year cycle, which is also observed in Fujii's native Japan. Fujii built a suite of compositions around this calendar as a way to mark the sixtieth birthday this year of her husband, Natsuki Tamura.

It's not an orchestra that swings so much as it swerves, and the sheer size of the band creates inertia that makes every little shift create a seismic tremor. In contrast to Fujii's wild and wooly (and totally fun) Tokyo Orchestra, the New York crew delivers it surprises with a Manhattan sophistication that does George Russell proud. My suspicion is that Fujii consciously did this to play more to the strengths of the individuals involved, which include Ellery Eskelin, Chris Speed, Frank London, Andy laster, Joey Sellers and a host of others. It also features the man of honor, Tamura.

Fujii breaks up the “Eto" suite into niblet-sized showcases for each of the soloists. Like no other big band, Fujii is able to underscore the individual personalities of each soloist; even though there's three or more each of saxophonists, trumpet players and trombonists, they all make a distinctive noise that does away with any notion that there's redundancy. When we reach Tamura's showcase on “Snake," (YouTube below) he's in a nasty mood, contorting sounds from his trumpet that I thought only John Zorn could wrest from his saxophone. The energy that culminates throughout the suite is released on “Boar," underscored by Briggan Krauss' Brötzmann-worthy sax fury. “Dragon," featuring trombonist Curtis Hasselbring, is also unhinged, as Hasselbring seems to be conversing with all the other horn players with human-like intonations. Eskelin's turn on “Tiger" mixes in sharp horn charts with tenor saxophonist's small combo styled statements. Frank London's trumpet is a delight on “Monkey," he seems to be chattering just like one. “Stroll" wraps up the whole thing quietly, without any grand ending statement.

ETO is a perfect example of why even though I can't listen through many large orchestra recordings for more than one go around, I can play Fujii Orchestra recordings all day long.

Satoko Fujii Min-Yoh EnsembleWatershed

In 2006, Fujii opened up yet another new front in her rich, varying collection of projects when she formed the quartet Min-Yoh, a word that means Japanese folk music. The debut album Fujin Raijin (2007) contained a mixture of traditional Japanese folk tunes and Fujii originals, and the mixture is there again for the group's second one, Watershed. But don't expect to hear the four actually sound like Min-Yoh music, as, for one, the ensemble is configured with all Western instrumentation, even if the combination is unusual. Joining Fujii's piano is her husband Tamura again on trumpet and Americans Curtis Hasselbring on trombone and Andrea Parkins on accordion. Fujii doesn't seek to recreate the music, anyway, she uses the music form's powerful simplicity to guide her own music. Using hers or the traditional compositions as only basic framework, the players fill in the space inside the wide parameters with whatever throws off the most lyrical light.

The songs contain a whole lot of airy pockets in them, “The Thaw" “Limestone Cave," “Hanagasa Ondo" and “Estuary" foremost. On here as on other Fujii recordings, she conjures up creative ways to build up elements within a composition that spar with each other, creating the sparks that make her songs so compelling: on “The Thaw," (YouTube below) she plays an ostinato as Tamura and Hasselbring improvise on a different plane and Parkins attempts to reconcile the two opposing forces. On “Whitewater," a dancing melody from Fujii emerges that everyone plays along to, but instead of dwelling on just playing the melody, Tamura and Parkins stretch it out and mold changing figures from that clay, like messing around with Play Doh. All the while, the joyful spirit of the melody remains intact.

The light to moderate intensity of the music and the simple tonal structures conceal the complexity of the improvisation going on behind the curtain, but it's that light touch which makes Watershed a delightful listen.


Min-Yoh was Fujii's newest project five years ago, but Kaze is her latest one now. Also a quartet starring Tamura, Kaze adds the French musicians Christian Pruvost on trumpet and Peter Orins on drums and electronic twiddling. The recordings are culled from a live performance in Poland last fall commemorating the bicentennial of Frederik Chopin's birth and at times, you can detect a Fujii playing as if she is playing a Chopin piece. But as in everything else she draws influences from, those influences only serve as reference points and spiritual influences; the end product music she makes is ultimately her own.

In the case of Rafale, even more of the music is Orins,' who composed half of the half dozen tracks, with two by Fujii and one by Tamura. This speaks volumes of what Fujii thinks of Orins' compositions, as she typically sticks exclusively with her own songs or her interpretation of traditional songs. The opener “Noise Chopin" is Tamura's composition, but Orins nonetheless figures prominently in it: a song built up and led from silence by his undaunted snare drum. When the climax is reached in the middle, he switches roles into a colorist, adding to the accents to the trumpet and piano solos.

Orins' “Anagramme" is intriguing with the trumpets dueling with noteless or barely notes puffs on the mouthpiece as Orins puts up a sonic background with a barely perceptible mix of drums and electronics. Some sort of a staggered groove emerges from this that in itself is fascinating, and the horns (one of them muted) by this time are blown conventionally and following melodic lines. “The Thaw" from Min-Yoh's Watershed is revisited, beginning with Orins alone improvising at uneven tempos and making way for the two opposing threads of music between Fujii and the two horns. This time, it's Orins who plays the role of bridging the opposing forces. “Marie-T," (YouTube below) another Orins-penned song, is at its core an interaction between Fujii and Orins, with Fujii venturing out and exploring the frontiers of the song and Orins staying calm and steady in the center with a mixture of both acoustic and electronic percussive effects. On the last two tracks “Polly" and “Blast," Orins becomes downright explosive on these rock-heavy tracks.

Fujii's enthusiasm for Kaze is easily noticed from reading her liner notes, and the passion is borne out in the music. Pruvost works well with Tamura, but Orins is the real deal as both a percussionist and composer. I think we'll likely hear more from Kaze in the future; the debut certainly merits an encore.

All three albums, to be released July 19, come from Fujii and Tamura's own Libra Records and these records can be ordered here.

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