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Thursday, March 23, 2017

Satoko Fujii - Invisible Hand (Cortez, 2016) ****½

By Lee Rice Epstein

As a preface to this review of Satoko Fujii’s new solo piano album, Invisible Hand, I looked back at her massive discography and discovered that it’s been 20 years since her first solo album, Indication, with only two others since. For as expressive a voice as Fujii’s, I was a little surprised there had been so few (as was Stef, it turns out! When he reviewed Gen Himmel several years ago, he opened with nearly the same comment). But in many ways, it does make a lot of sense that Fujii, who exhibits a kind of boundless exploration that finds her often in new pairings or with new lineups for her international orchestras, would hold back from releasing a lot of solo piano works. In this way, she reminds me of Agustí Fernández, with their never-ending pursuit of new sounds, new groups, and new collaborations.

Invisible Hand is a two-disc recording of a live performance from 2016 at Cortez in Mito, Japan. The whole first disc is improvised, divided into five tracks, each displaying its own unifying, self-contained motifs and idioms. “Thought” opens the album with a deliberate, transparent approach that works as both an invitation and a warm-up meditation. By the time the gorgeous “Floating” expands into its bright middle section, whole worlds have opened up. Even alone, as she is here, there is an ever-present sense of dialogue. In the notes to the album, Fujii remarks that she originally turned down an invitation to play at Cortez because they only had an upright piano, and she often plays inside the piano. (Eventually, Cortez got a grand piano and invited her back, and lucky for us, she accepted the offer.) Even this simple technical description, “I play inside the piano strings,” understates the interior dialogue Fujii crafts. For a good, long stretch of the title track, “Invisible Hand,” the strings and keys are locked in conversation, as the piece extends into a lengthy self-reflection.

On the second disc, Fujii performs another two improvisations, as well as a couple of songs from Gen Himmel, “I Know You Don’t Know” and “Gen Himmel,” and the title track from Spring Storm. Naturally, “Spring Storm” is a dramatic alteration, the original was recorded with Fujii’s New Trio with Todd Nicholson and Takashi Itani. In the solo reading, Fujii creates an astonishing amount of drama to counter the brain’s desire to fill in with hints of bass or drums. Her take is broad and complex, halting at moments, as she contains the momentum of the piece with her tremendous command of the piano, inside and out. The result is utterly captivating. Equally great is this live take on “Gen Himmel.” Slightly pared down with Fujii’s attack slightly adjusted, the result transforms “Gen Himmel” into an act of in-the-moment self-discovery, rather than rediscovery. There’s a tremendous effect in closing this lengthy album with an expanded take on a previous album-opener. All the expectation that’s built into that studio recording is inverted, as Fujii performs an emotionally rich and reflective epilogue.

Available from Instant Jazz  and Downtown Music Gallery.