It’s not long since I reviewed four recent releases, all by bands led by Satoko Fujii and her life partner Natsuki Tamura (see Related Posts below), but it’s already time for another, this one from yet another of the prolific partnership’s subtly differentiated groups. And it’s a doozy.
Ma-do is a quartet that shares three members with the previously reviewed Gato Libre. Both groups feature Fujii, Tamura (trumpet), and Norikatsu Koreyasu (bass), but the two units are markedly different. In Gato Libre, the composer is Tamura; In ma-do, it is Fujii. In Gato Libre, Fujii plays accordion; here, she plays piano. Where Gato Libre eschews percussion in favour of guitar, ma-do has a relatively conventional bass/drums setup, with Akira Horikoshi on drums.
Time Stands Still (Not Two) was recorded in June 2011 in New York, some three months before Gato Libre recorded Forever in Tokyo. Both recordings will be their respective groups’ last, because Norikatsu Koreyasu died, suddenly on 23 September 2011.
In her liner notes, Fujii explains that in early 2011 the group, which Fujii first convened in October 2007, was “doing more and more gigs”, with tours of Hokkaido, Australia, and North American bracketing recording dates and Tokyo concerts, and preparations were in hand for a European tour in November. This concentrated activity no doubt explains the ideational clarity and expressive boldness of ma-do’s playing here.
“In ma-do,” Fujii says, “we didn’t go out drinking or take excursions together. It wasn’t like hanging out with your best friends. But when we played music, we knew we were communicating on a deep level.” And of course, she pays special testimony to Koreyasu: “In his music and in his heart, Norikatsu Koreyasu was someone without a single lie in him. A musician without lies – I have never met anyone else like that.”
Only the last track, the album’s title composition, sounds, with hindsight, elegiac. In a brief, opening drums solo, Horikoshi plays with a timpanist’s restraint and coloration. Next to enter, Tamura’s tone is mournful; then percussion yields to the resinous caress of double bass, played arco; brass yields to stately, lucid piano. At the end, Fujii weaves seductive pirouettes around Koreyasu’s low-bowed threnody.
A Koreyasu bass solo also opens proceedings on the album’s first track, “Fortitude”, but here his playing is contrastingly tight, harsh and abrasive. Fujii and Horikoshi play curt, stabbing figures to impart urgency, and it falls to Tamura to conjure a compelling folk-form melody, which seems to lift the quartet’s collective spirits.
Time Stands Still is both more stately and more powerful than a younger, more combustible ma-do captured on the (excellent nonetheless) 2008 Heat Wave album (Libra). At times Fujii plays with the imperious dynamism of Marilyn Crispell; at others she mines flavours from black music traditions, from godspelized ecstasy to rumprolling hard bop.
“North Wind And The Sun” is an episodic composition, beginning with Tamura blowing feathery abstractions, then adjusting to accommodate his bandmates’ dramatic scene changes, some of which occur with the suddenness of file card flick-throughs (I’d be curious to read about Fujii’s compositional methodologies). The pianist’s concluding head arrangement is simply phenomenal.
The album constantly shifts register between sensitive textural interplay and unexpected, dazzling illuminations. On “Time Flies”, Tamura’s trumpet provides a launchpad for propulsive rhythm dynamics bracketing a vigorous drum break, and his resolute idiomatic freedom draws the heat down on “Rolling Around”, which is pure textural gorgeousness.
I reckon Fujii can second-guess her partner; certainly she structures her compositions to allow him maximum expressive freedom. Horikoshi and Koreyasu, likewise, play with exemplary tastefulness and restraint. Witness the bassist’s wonderfully transparent pizzicato solo during “Set The Clock Back”, or the smeared tonalities he blends with Tamura’s buzzing at the start of “Broken Time”.
The remainder of “Broken Time” forms a diptych, switching from to brooding to jouncy at midpoint. Fujii is exuberant at the keyboard, whipping up Horikoshi and Koreyasu for a terrific, cyclonic piano trio. Tamura returns just briefly to add his signature to the melodic resolution, then Horikoshi slips his mooring to play a glorious, tumultuous full-kit coda.
This is an exceptional group, and Time Stands Still is an exceptional album. Koreyasu couldn’t wish for a better testament.