Three very different albums by just three of the groups led, or co-led by pianist Satoko Fujii and trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, whose recent solo albums I’ve also reviewed here.
Gato Libre – DuDu (Libra)
Natsuki Tamura: trumpet; Yasuko Kaneko: trombone; Satoko Fujii: accordion; Kazuhiko Tsumura: guitar.
There’s no such thing as a usual album from either Natsuki or Satoko. On Gato LIbra, a quartet dedicated to Natsuki’s compositions for a singular configuration of trumpet, trombone and guitar, plus Satoko on accordion rather than her usual piano.
On Gato Libre’s last album, Forever, trombonist Yasuko Kaneko’s low-end roll was taken by bassist Norikatsu Koreyasu, who sadly died shortly after its recording. In moving forward, Natsuki has settled, as he says himself in the album notes, on “strange instrumentation”.
Forever seemed to reference folk forms and the music for films of Nino Rota. DuDu is different, equally varied, but more cooly beyond categorisation. That said, “DuDu” begins with movie mariachi trumpet declamations, strummed guitar in accompaniment. The accordion then takes up the melodic development, maintaining a tango vibe. The introduction of trombone weirds things though, and its bruised hues sets a more sombre tone on the sombrely introspective “Gato”. The two brass instruments combine here to ravishing effect, Natsuki the more experimental, adding strokes of texture with smears and blurs of extended breathing technique.
The album continues in often pensive mood, the players allowing each other plenty of silence in which to operate, to develop ideas – to say ‘to elaborate’ would be quite wrong: this is supremely lucid music of emphatic simplicity. Natsuki’s compositions flex with plenty of conceptual plasticity, facilitating dynamic interpretation (his solo versions of Gato Libra material on new solo album Dragon Nat are also reviewed here).
The players take turns to embroider the melody of “Nanook”, until at length the twinned brass taking things further out with a slippery, smeary duet. Then There’s superb trumpet playing at the heart of “Rainy Day”, but it’s the shifting relationship between Satoko and Kazuhiko that sets the tone: the piece begins with high-tone accordion sustains behind needlepoint guitar, a relationship both inverted and reprised before it concludes. “Scramble” has the brass playing variations on a prancing melodic figure, which guitar and accordion embellish.
The shape of Natsuki’s arrangements are often not so easily pinned down; they seem to be moulded on the fly. Witness, on “Mouse”, the supremely memorable trumpet figure that sparks at irregular intervals with unexpected rightness. And “Cirencester”, for 8:10 a lovely, unforced duet for guitar and accordion, with brass only coming in to bolster the final 49 seconds.
After all the preceding refinement, “B&B” ends the album with unexpected urgency, a hint of drama, even agitation creeping into the mix.
Kaze – Tornado (Libra)
Christian Pruvost: trumpet; Natsuki Tamura: trumpet; Satoko Fujii: piano; Peter Orins: drums.
After all the poise of Gato LIbre, the fire of Kaze is bracing stuff. Natsuki’s trumpet begins “Wao” subtly enough, but the piece soon explodes with almost cartoonishly colourful vigour.
Kaze is one of Natsuki and Satoko’s youngest groups, and this, their second recording after 2012’s Rafale, features the same bass-less, dual trumpet lineup. The oldest of the three recordings reviewed here, from an October 2012 studio session, Tornado channels the same “dark drama” I found so invigorating on that earlier live album with increased ebullience. Of its five compositions, two apiece were penned by Satoko, two by drummer Peter Orins, and “Wao” by Natsuki.
Three and a half minutes in, “Wao” is already a puckish jumble of perky piano, weird vocalisations and irruptive drumming, when Satoko produces a barrage, a tidal surge of rumbling piano that temporarily washes the brass players away. The piece then plays out as a tempestuous, percussive rumpus for piano and drums, the brass only reentering to cap the piece with a unison figure.
Orins’ meticulously arranged “Mecanique” restores some calm before Satoko’s title piece ranges out again. Here Orins’ leisurely percussion solo lays down a discursive blueprint for the others to build from, kicking in behind Satoko’s emphatic pianism before the twinned brass first introduce abrasively abstract distortions, then trade unison figures signalling an unexpected silence. Here they explore raw sonic abstraction, Satoko joining in with preparations in her piano producing gamelan bell tones. Just as the energy of piece seems set to drain away, the quartet play a lovely, clearly articulated summation and then, suddenly reinvigorated, a bold, brief unison coda.
Orins’ “Imokidesu” is compactly dynamic, with the quartet focused on a united progression of increasingly vigorous, tightly-wound and highly-strung ostinatos, the full power of the quartet in distillation. Again, the contrast with Satoko’s more free-ranging compositional style is marked. The latter’s “Triangle”, at 19:53 by far the album’s longest piece, also its most subdued, begins with the composer gently, directly sounding the piano’s harp, adding a shimmer to soft, burred purrs of brass. The piece then builds slowly on stately chords, textured by washes of peripheral percussion, before relaxing and unfolding. At midpoint one of the trumpets solos, joined at length by its combative counterpart and vigorous percussion and piano, both alternating between propulsive emphasis and impressionistic texture. An ensuing, energising percussion solo continues with renewed vigour when the trumpets intrude in unison, it’s force bolstered by Satoko’s piano, to which everyone yields. Her solo is emphatic and imperious, a strong basis for the album’s potent, combustible climax.
Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York – Shiki (Circum Libra)
Oscar Noriega, Briggan Krauss: alto sax; Ellery Eskelin, Tony Malaby: tenor sax; Andy Laster: baritone sax; Natsuki Tamura, Herb Robertson, Steven Bernstein, Dave Ballou: trumpet; Curtis Hasselbring, Joey Sellers, Joe Fiedler: trombone; Satoko Fujii: piano; Stomu Takeishi: bass; Aaron Alexander: drums.
If Gato Libre is one of the Satoko/Natsuki partnership’s most singular ensembles, Satoko’s various orchestras are perhaps the most ambitious: she has others dedicated to her music based in Tokyo, Nagoya, and Kobe. The roll-call of her New York band includes names any jazz fan will recognise: it’s a dream band, which has retained many of the same members for over a decade.
This album is dominated by the first of its three pieces, the 36:34 “Shiki”, that title a Japanese word which translates to English as “Four Seasons”. Reflecting the changeability of the seasons, Satoko’s composition interleaves structured and freely improvised passages with others permitting its interpreters controlled freedoms. Compared to the acoustic lucidity of Gato Libre and the dynamic explosivity of Kaze, the orchestral sound is deep and rich.
“Shiki” develops leisurely, the various horns accreting around a limber bassline with outrider trumpet solos, until a collective intake of breath at 7:30 signals a transition to a tumbling percussion break and a series of unison fanfares, out of which a briefly solo trumpet emerges. Stomu’s electric bass has an impish role to play, inciting breakaway factions to essay variations on the underlying melodic progression. Conductor Satoko’s control is explicit here in the sense of balance and logical progression she imposes on the performances’ evolution. She gradually guides the orchestra through rapids coursed by the saxophonists into broader currents in which bass and brass keep things buoyant. Throughout, there’s one same overarching melodic unison. The halfway point is a lull probed in turn by the lighter saxes, muted trumpets and one of the trombonists, edging us toward a stepwise unison crescendo and accelerando into a passage of free blowing around rangy electric bass and stormy percussion. A dominant trombone solo bridges to the next wave of unison riffs, which break onto yet another vigorous bassline, tribal percussion and declamatory trumpet soloing before returning on an upswell. Another lull allows the saxophones to soliloquise, then discourse, with Andy Lester’s baritone prominent and the orchestra providing shade. Again its Stomu’s bass that threads this passage into an ensemble drone under the eloquent trumpet solo which brings the piece to rest.
“Gen Himmel” (6:29), German for “Toward Heaven”, is Satoko’s dedication to Norikatsu Koreyasu, who besides playing in Gato Libre was also a member of Satoko’s quartet ma-do (Satoko also recorded the piece for her recent solo album of the same title). It’s a stately, hymnal piece, played in unison with a hint of the Brotherhood of Breath’s township spirituality. Again, it’s the trumpeters who play with most expressivity.
On both of her own compositions Satoko restricts herself to conduction, but she plays piano on Shiki‘s last piece, Natsuki’s “Bi Ga Do Da” (10:06). For 2:20 voices mutter amid smears of trumpet, then fast punchy ostinati kick in under a chant of the title phrase, there’s a short interval of further apparently argumentative badinage, then a driving rock bassline and fiery solo trumpet triggers a hammering reprise of the choral ostinati, with Satoko’s piano tumultuous. This staccato structure rolls on to the end, propelled mostly by drummer Aaron Alexander, the vocalizations ever more goofy. The anarchic good humour of the orchestra here recalls Boredoms’ transition from anarcho-jazz to its current incarnation as psych drum circle.
Satoko Fujii – Gen Himmel + Natsuki Tamura – Dragon Nat
Satoko Fujii ma-do – Time Stands Still
Natsuki Tamura and Satoko Fujii – Muku + Gato Libre – Forever
Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York – ETO + Kaze – Rafale