I enjoyed the two latest albums from Satoko Fuji and Natsuki Tamura (Natsuki Tamura and Satoko Fujii – Muku + Gato Libre – Forever) so much that I decided I should also check out last year’s crop, and I’m glad I did.
Whereas Muku and Gato Libre’s Forever featured Tamura’s music, the first of the two albums here is by Fujii’s Orchestra New York, and is devoted to her compositions, while the second is a collaboration with two French musicians, also initiated by Fujii.
The Satoko Fujii New York Orchestra is the most longstanding of Fujii’s four big bands (She has recorded eight albums since 2000 with orchestras based in Tokyo, Nagoya, and Kobe.)
The New York Orchestra was first recorded in 1997, and ETO (2011, Libra Records) is their eighth album.
Fujii’s subtle command of orchestral dynamics is evident from the start, as “The North Wind and the Sun” moves lithely through various stylistic switchbacks.
The supple electric bass playing of Stomu Takeishi is as vital here as it is in Henry Threadgill’s Zooid, while the dynamic drumming of his rhythm partner Aaron Alexander has just the right balance of assertion and freedom to enliven the big band dynamics.
And what a band it is! An all-star affair, with the composer (piano) also marshalling the various talents of Oscar Noriega and Briggan Krauss (alto saxophone); Ellery Eskelin (tenor sax); Chris Speed (tenor sax and clarinet); Andy Laster (baritone sax); Herb Robertson, Dave Ballou, Frank London and Natsuki Tamura (trumpet); Joey Sellers, Curtis Hasselbring and Joe Fiedler (trombone).
Fujii composed the album’s main piece, “ETO Suite”, for her husband Tamura on the occasion of his 60th birthday.
Bookended by an “Overture” and “Prologue”, the title and character of the twelve remaining short pieces each derive from an animal of the Chinese zodiac, or eto, and each piece has its featured soloist.
Only the ruminative “Ox” (with Sellers soloing on trombone) stays around for more than two and a half minutes. The sprightly scamper of Speed’s clarinet on “Rat” is more typical of these contrasting sketches. Where Ballou’s eloquent solo on “Hare” runs through some surprisingly smooth orchestration, Ellery Eskelin has to bite hard into “Tiger” to dominate its vigorous unison riffs.
The musician’s evocations of their aural avatars are invariably inspired: Tamura’s “Snake” is all sibilance and smears, and Hasselbring’s “Dragon” a dry throaty rasp through broiling bass and brass. And from the stately “Ram” to a fiery, post-bop “Horse”, Fujii’s the orchestrated scenery is just as effective.
Frank London’s trumpet solo plays a musical hand clapping game with the orchestra on “Monkey”, while Fiedler’s muted trombone on “Dog” converses garrulously with sinuous charts fired by the rhythm section.
Fujii rounds the album off with two further substantial pieces: Tamura rips with elan into the album’s finest solo on “Pressure Cooker”, which simmers nicely after an early climax, and the orchestra continue to parry gracefully on the episodic “Stroll”.
ETO is a superb, vividly nuanced album, and too detailed for background listening; but get hooked in, and its 59’30” passes in a heartbeat.
Kaze is a collaborative quartet comprising Fujii and Tamura plus French musicians Christian Pruvost (trumpet) and Peter Orins (drums).
On Rafale (2011, Circum-Libra) this bass-less, dual trumpet setup results in a painterly and vigorously expressive group sound.
The opening “Noise Chopin” (Tamura) packs an awesome amount of musical expressivity into its 14’32”, but one undoubted highlight comes where melody flowers from fractured martial percussion.
“Anagramme” (Orins) begins with the trumpets duetting in flatulent smears and burrs while Fujii strokes sine wave harmonics from the piano’s harp. As the piece develops to a dramatic conclusion the quartet dynamics are equally obfusc; there’s a sense here of centrifugal force awry. Fujii’s “The Thaw”, by contrast, carries her beguilingly simple piano melody in its mix to the end.
Mostly, this is music of dark drama. “Marie-T” (Orins) is exceedingly gentle at first, but soon darkens, and Fujii’s early solo is tonally funereal. Her only accompaniment is a thin skein of tightly compressed trumpet that ends in stridulations merging with a wash of brushed cymbals. At length the trumpets play a melodic lament over dolorous piano chords, segueing into the more abstract “Polly”. Fujii conjures a turbulent undertow that draws Orins’s percussion into a forceful mid-tempo melody, and at length the quartet merges to vamp on a forceful ostinato groove.
Orins finally gets to solo with unrestrained intensity on Fuji’s “Blast”, before entering into a punishing duet with Fujii that’s merely the prelude to another climactic ostinato for the quartet. The cathartic release of accumulated tension is powerfully effective on record; it must have been doubly so for the audience at the concert at which Kaze was recorded.
Being new to the music of Fujii and Tamura, I find that the variety and consistent excellence of the conception and execution of the four albums I’ve reviewed in this roundup has left me hungry for more. I’m particularly tempted by the prospect of the reputedly corruscating electric fusion direction explored on Hada Hada (Libra Records, 2002), on which Fujii plays synthesizer.