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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Satoko Fujii ... and bands ... looking back from the future ...

I can guarantee, with certainty, that, somewhere in 2087, in a bar on the planet ZOrghk942, when some legally extraterrestrialized, yet interesting, jazz afficionados are thinking back about their favorite music at the turn of the century on planet Earth, that Satoko Fujii will come up in the discussion. Many- and I mean MANY - of the musicians that we think of as good today, will unfortunately have totally disappeared into oblivion, disappeared into a black hole outside history, fortunately together with some other zillion musicians who occupy radio space. What makes Satoko Fujii great? The answer is simple : she is music, she loves music, she creates new languages in music. And I mean indeed the plural of the word. She has more ideas in a year than most musicians in a lifetime, and she manages to create with each CD and with each line-up something exceptional, out of the ordinary, unique and yet accessible, relatively speaking then. The major problem with many avant-garde musicians is that their lack of inspiration pushes their music over the cliffs of endurable listening, into the chasms of self-absorbed and self-indulgent hermetism. Not so with Fujii - she pulls her listeners out of their comfort zone into new realms of music, into new listening experiences, but more gratifying than crashing off cliffs, she rather lifts them up into the air, up for new vistas, where falling is no longer an option, with room only for surprise, wonder and joy, hard at times, sweet at others, but always impressive, and once you're in her musical universe, falling is no longer an option, you fly along ... Her music is not only exceptional, she is also prolific, like Mozart, releasing one CD after another, in some years even one a month, and each of a level of quality that is suprising. I just got three new CDs released by her by three of the bands she plays in, and I am at a total loss about how to review them. Let's give it a try.

Satoko Fujii Trio - Trace A River (Libra, 2008) ****

Mark Dresser opens the first track, "Trace A River", with high arco bowing, plaintive, brooding, with sparse piano chords by Fujii and soft accentuations given by Jim Black's drums, but then the slow flowing tumbles down the slopes of hills and mountains in torrents of hard-hitting chords and percussive power, with Dresser's bass taking over the momentum for a fast pizzi solo, without slowing down the cascading river, sinewing and moving left and right, while Fujii is building up the tension again, in full force, with a quite interesting orchestrated and unexpected unison core theme, then Black gets his cascading solo moment, after which quietness and sweetness return, the water has reached flatter landscapes, leading to a stunning arco solo by Dresser, which evolves into a slow beautiful repetitive plaintive theme, supported by a fixed rhythm uptempo percussion, Fujii restraining herself with some sparse chordal accentuation. Expressive and impressive. The second track showcases Fujii's sense of rhythm and rhythm changes. I will not describe every track, it would be boring, but I justed wanted to share that Satoko Fujii really has her own style, full of unexpected dynamics, twists and turns, a great melodic and structural approach while remaining very improvisational at the same time. This is the fourth release of the Satoko Fujii Trio since 1997 if I'm not mistaken, and it's a real pitty that they only record every few years. The interplay between these three musicians is excellent and full of surprises. Like with Tamura, the blending of sweet impressionistic moments with hard accents and expressionistic depth and power is unusual and it works really well. Just one more example : on "A Maze Of Alleys", the piano starts with an upbeat jazzy Mozartian theme, which then really comes crashing down the stairs, piano and all, hitting the wall on the landing, and hard, but then the tune resumes and the track goes on, and you can visualize the way the tune finds its way through the maze, taking turns, bumping into things, hesitating, slowing down, then taking up speed again if the exit appears to be clear. It's fun, it's clever. It's soft, it's hard, it's serious and it's not. The following track brings a solo piano piece : soft, sensitive and serene. Great.

Junk Box - Sunny Then Cloudy (Libra, 2008) *****

But the piece de résistance of her recent releases is the new Junk Box, with Natsuki Tamura on trumpet and John Hollenbeck on percussion. The first Junk Box CD was already something special, but this one goes even further, even deeper into avant-garde territory, with lots of extended techniques used on the various instruments, but they create music, not just sounds, there is a story to tell, sometimes full of anguish, sometimes dark, full of drama, with truckloads of expressiveness. The brightly shining wheat field on the cover, with the red flames under a dark sky truly reflect the nature of the music. It is all about contrast, about freedom and control, about darkness and light, speed and slowness, rhythm and counter-rhythm, but then with the dynamics of fire and passion to move the whole thing forward, and it's in all this heavily accentuated lightfootedness that the true art of this band emerges.

"Back And Forth" brings a great counterpoint duel between piano and trumpet, echoing, and changing the theme, in a nervous, repetitive tone at first, then while Tamura gets a clearer and higher tone, the piano becomes all chaotic and dissonant. And although Fujii composed and leads the trio, she offers the space to the two other musicians, with Tamura clearly receiving the spotlight.

In sharp contrast to the Gato Libre album, Tamura goes at times totally beyond any conventional trumpet sound. Listen to his extreme shouting out his anguish on "Soldier's Depression", coming close to the human voice, in pure agony, as a matter of scene-setting, (together with Hollenbeck's military march), but then he moves on to sadness while Fujii and Hollenbeck accentuate, creating a weird canvas around the lead voice of the trumpet.
On "Chinese Kitchen", Tamura's trumpet is screaming and howling, while Fujii works the inside of her piano and Hollenbeck manages to provide percussive hits without any discernable pattern. On the last track, "Cloudy Then Sunny", the tune starts with music close to the most hectic moments of the opening track "Computer Virus", again totally disorienting with low piano rumbling and screeching trumpet, yet the piano calms him down (although not willingly from what you can hear), his trumpet-playing is suddenly clear as a bell, pure and almost classical, with Fujii playing impressionistic romantic accompaniment, and then, just as you think that darkness and pain have been conquered, the track ends with some hair-raising trumpet sounds, giving the effect of the hand coming out of the grave at the end of a horror movie.

This is not easy listening, but it is very rewarding. The trio manages to create something unusual with known and unknown ingredients, creating things on the spot with lots of complexity and evocative power. There aren't many who can manage this. Next to being the pièce de résistance of her recent releases, it's also a tour de force. It's a rare artistic achievement. Brilliant.

When John Zorn turned 50, he got the brilliant idea of releasing a kazillion records to celebrate the occasion. Satoko Fujii has also reached that age now. Congratulations! There is nothing she needs to copy from John Zorn, except for her to release a kazillion CDs to celebrate the occasion.

And as a wish, well, that her CDs get better known, but that will come with time. By 2087 for sure. You can bet on it.