This is the first of two posts in which I review the recent crop of new albums by the prolific husband and wife partnership of pianist Satoko Fujii and trumpeter Natsuki Tamura. Here I take a look at their recent brace of solo albums, both of which were recorded in one day in the studio in September 2012. In my next post, I’ll review three very different albums by three of the groups they lead or co-lead.
Satoko Fujii – Gen Himmel (Libra)
Satoko Fujii: piano.
Satoko Fujii says, in her own album notes: “When I play solo, I need to hear myself and listen carefully. I also get inspiration from the silence I hear between the notes. For me playing in groups is about self-expression, and playing solo is more like meditation.”
Gen Himmel, Satoko’s second solo album, comes a decade after her last, Sketches (Polystar, 2004), and it’s a masterful work of beguilingly deceptive simplicity.
“Gen Himmel” begins with clouds of motes of notes sprung from the piano’s harp to settle around a series of evenly-paced chords. The placid mood of distillation is continued, embellished in ways any lover of Bach should appreciate on “In The Dusk” and pared back to pensive simplicity again on “Hesitation”, albeit the latter is quirked by Satoko’s questioning left-hand.
The album’s longest piece, “Take Right” begins with tamped key strikes and gamelan-sounding preparations, and continues as a playful étude comprising minimalist one-note repetitions; scampering, detonated clusters; and increasingly vigorous rhythmic vamps.
“Ram” is a steady rumination on simple variations offset by variegated commentary from under the piano lid; rather sombre, as is the dour distillation of melody on “A.S.” “Dawn Broun”, comparatively jaunty, tumbles occasionally from aerial flights into rumbling low-frequency turbulence. “Summer Solstice” likewise signals turmoil kept in check, lucid passages shading portentously into a darkness which is mirrored in the stately, cerebral opacity which glosses the emotional depths of the well-titled “I Know You Don’t Know”.
The deliberation of Satoko’s playing becomes ever more condensed through “Ittari Kitari” and “Saka”. With the prepared piano embellishments of earlier pieces such as “Gen Himmel” now seemingly repudiated, the closing “Der Traum” broaches a rapport between ‘classical’ modes of pianism and emotive lyricism.
Gen Himmel is German for Toward Heaven, a title which implicitly acknowledges Satoko’s dedication to lost friends. “I was always so afraid of death,” she has said: “But when I lost my friends, I felt completely different than what I expected… I knew their lives were happy and beautiful, so I wanted to make a peaceful and happy album.”
For this listener, any happiness here is tainted by its creator’s palpable sadness, yet Satoko’s distillation into this album of her introspective mourning has produced powerfully affecting music of refined melodic clarity.
Natsuki Tamura – Dragon Nat (Libra)
Natsuki Tamura: trumpet.
Dragon Nat is an album of solo variations on music which Natsuki has previously recorded with his Gato Libre quartet, in which Satoko plays accordion (I review their new album, DuDu, in my next post).
Opening track “Shiro” is in full sympathy with Natsuki’s partner Satoko’s sense of playing solo as meditation; indeed much of the music here is played with a similar emphasis on technical concision and depth of feeling.
Title piece “Dragon Nat” is remarkable for the extraordinary, burred purr through which Natsuki vocalises, but there’s a contrasting coolness and unforced simplicity to his clean-contoured rendition of “Forever”, while on “In Berlin, in September”, he begins with the sombre tonality unique to his instrument before sounding out in the fulsome, brassy tones of elegiac jazz: “World” is likewise straightforward and emotionally direct.
Interleaved with these unaffected pieces are others more playfully variegated.
Natsuki accompanies a spartan melodic line and raw, air-leak embouchure on “Dialogue” with intermittent silences and a constant, gently agitated rustle of sleigh bells. Within this, which is the album’s longest piece at !2:20, he also shapes a breathtakingly concise solo into something absolutely beautiful, albeit studded with an interlude of extraordinary duck-call vocalisations, which he accompanies with one of those hand-held, double-headed pellet drums. The more declamatory “Wunderbar” also features percussion and vocalese, and though it begins straightforwardly enough it becomes ever more abstract: shades here of Art Ensemble of Chicago at their most shamanic.
Natsuki ends this richly rewarding album with the relatively virtuosic flourish of “Matsuri”, in which his playing surges on dynamic, tightly muted bursts of energy, plaintively diminishing to an ending cushioned by a sustained, softly rasping purr.
Gato Libre – DuDu + Kaze – Tornado + Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York – Shiki
Satoko Fujii ma-do – Time Stands Still
Natsuki Tamura and Satoko Fujii – Muku + Gato Libre – Forever
Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York – ETO + Kaze – Rafale