Pianist/composer Satoko Fujii is absurdly prolific. I’ve reviewed ten of her recordings in five posts since November 2012 (twelve in six now), and haven’t covered everything. (Since my September 2014 review of Tornado, a combustible album by Kaze, a co-operative quartet she co-leads with her partner, trumpet player Natsuki Tamura, there’s been another, Uminari, that’s just as good.) And if anyone else in jazz is recording more consistently invigorating music, I’m not aware of it.
Satoko Fujii Tobira – Yamiyo Ni Karasu (Libra)
Tobira is Satoko’s established New Trio (with Todd Nicholson on bass and Takashi Itani on drums), plus Natsuki on trumpet. As Satoko says herself, he adds “energy and humour, so the band has more colour”.
That said, there’s a darkling quality to this set that marks it out. Lead track “Hanabi”‘s initial coolness is disrupted by an exhilarating outburst of percussion, but Satoko’s response is a resonant wash of inside piano and gamelan preparations. The composition then maintains a tension between rounded ‘classical’ sonorities and percussion-bound rumble. Natsuki blows over some stormy intensities, before Nicholson’s bass mediates a more considered resolution.
Satoko’s music is full of such unexpected and quicksilver transitions and psychologically astute mood swings.
“Run After a Shadow”, for piano trio, is inexorable and formally explosive. Satoko, at her most imperious, combines with Takashi in monolithic unison. A cloudbreak in this otherwise blustery and elemental music spotlights Nicholson’s solo bass evocation of branches at a nighttime window.
Bluster turns to storm on the compacted “Fuki”, Natsuki blowing hard into whirlwind irruptions of group dynamics. “Wind Dance” then explores another kind of tension, with vigorous ostinatos framing solo showcases for Satoko’s dynamic melodicism, Nicholson’s plasticity, and Takashi’s elemental energies.
Satoko’s playing on “Centrifugal Force” achieves an implacable intensity, drawing a heated reaction from Nicholson and Takashi. Natsuki’s solo introduction to “Potential” energy brings a deceptive calm: Satoko soon brings the thunder back, though there’s a beautifully moderated final movement.
The abstractions of the brief title track (English translation:”The Crow in the Dark Night“) highlight a mood of dreamlike nocturnal agitation that has always shadowed the album’s otherwise hyper-wakeful turbulence.
Satoko Fujii Orchestra Berlin – Ichigo Ichie (Libra)
It’s notoriously hard to keep a big band together. Satoko’s solution is to have multiple Orchestras based in different cities. Her Berlin Orchestra is just the latest: she’s previously assembled and recorded Orchestras in Tokyo, Nagoya, Kobe and New York.
The Berlin Orchestra delivers an exceptionally finely-textured take on Satoko’s solemn mid-paced composition “Ichigo Ichie” (“Once in a Lifetime”), the four parts of which occupy over 40 minutes of the disc’s playing time.
“Ichigo Ichie 1” begins with a duet for the orchestra’s two drummers, Michael Griener and Peter Orins, which is exploratory rather than rhythm-driven. There is, however, a long, slow coming together and a muted crescendo.
“Ichigo Ichie 2” delivers unison horn riffs, but only momentarily. A minute in, and a sudden cessation leaves only muted trumpet, initially pensive, sounding out against exploratory tendrils of guitar and electronics, and a resurgent orchestra. A tenor sax then takes its turn in the spotlight, before thrumming contrabass brings on another full-orchestra response.
Natsuki Tamura’s instantly recognisable trumpet begins “Ichigo Ichie 3” with snuffling, Minton-esque vocalisations, prefacing a section of playfully dynamic contortions again featuring guitar, contrabass and percussion.
It’s great to hear a big band exploited for more than its potential mass and volume. When the serried horns do come in, this nuance renders them doubly effective, as collective energies channel into an oceanic surge-and-swell, bridging to “Ichigo Ichie 4”. Here, a saxophone solo leads into a contrabass duet, which then becomes a trio with drums, an interval of magnificent small group free-jazz that gradually picks up passengers, coalescing into a fully orchestral finale.
Just one other substantial piece rounds out the set. “ABCD” (14:17) begins with smears and muted whimpers of trumpet that nuzzle up to a gradually thickening ensemble drone. Increasing friction sparks a sudden burnout, and crisp, breakout drumming then drives a robust baritone sax solo and the full Orchestra pitches in in full flight.
A sudden break for a vigorous but muted piano and trombone duet, engendering more widespread textural foraging before the Orchestra’s next unison section, and an outro of tempered aggression that plays unison horns off against greater freedoms elsewhere in the ranks.
Both Yamiyo Ni Karasu and Ichigo Ichie feature mercurial and compulsively listenable performances. This is a superb brace of complimentary albums that demonstrate Satoko Fujii’s brilliance. They by no means cover the waterfront, but they’re a great place to dive in.
Satoko Fujii piano and Natsuki Tamura trumpet plus:
Tobira: Todd Nicholson bass; Takashi Itani drums, percussion.
Satoko Fujii Orchestra Berlin: Matthias Schubert, Gebhard Ullmann tenor sax; Paulina Owczarek baritone sax; Richard Koch and Nikolaus Neuser trumpet; Matthias Müller trombone; Kazuhisa Uchihashi guitar; Jan Roder bass; Michael Griener and Peter Orins drums.
Buy direct from Libra.