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Monday, March 19, 2018

Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York - Fukushima (Libra Records, 2017) ****

By Martin Schray

Satoko Fujii is a phenomenon: in 2018 she has embarked on releasing an album a month celebrating her 60th birthday, and in 2017 she released several albums with her different projects, e.g. Aspiration with Ikue Mori, Wadada Leo Smith and husband Natsuki Tamura, 如月 = Kisaragi, another duo recording with Natsuki Tamura, Neko with Gato Libre and finally Fukushima with her Orchestra New York. This ensemble has been together since their 1997 debut South Wind (Leo Lab/Libra) and has recorded ten albums so far, most of them containing excellent music like Summer Suite (2008, Libra) or Fukushima’s predecessor Shiki (2014, Libra). Fujii keeps several orchestras all over the world, in Berlin, Kobe, Nagoya and Tokyo, all of them including tremendous musicians, but the Orchestra New York is her oldest and most spectacular large ensemble. It’s a super group by any standards, it has remained largely intact over the course of twenty years - around longstanding members like Dave Ballou (trumpet), Ellery Eskelin (tenor sax), Herb Robertson (trumpet), Natsuki Tamura (trumpet), Joey Sellers (trombone), Joe Fiedler (trombone), Curtis Hasselbring (trombone), Oscar Noriega (alto sax), Stomu Takeishi (bass) and Tony Malaby (tenor sax). New on this album are guitar mastermind Nels Cline and drummer Ches Smith, and they really make a difference.

Fukushima is a suite about the nuclear accident in 2011, the five pieces are simply named “Part 1 - 5“. “Part 1“ opens with the simple sound of air passing through instruments, resembling the sound of human breathing, creating a sense of the fragility of human life, before Nels Cline's guitar and Andy Laster’s baritone saxophone entangle each other. Then Ches Smith’s percussion crawls in, preparing the way for the other reeds, the whole piece increases in intensity. The transition to “Part 2“ is seamless, and you can immediately hear the difference to the other albums of the orchestra: With Cline and Smith there’s a greater focus on rock structures and heavy sounds. In the middle of the track, when majestic, elegiac and highly emotional themes are contrasted by litanies of dissonance, warped guitar sounds and the relentless rock grooves we become aware of the full power of the orchestra. “Part 3“ includes the use of electronics reminiscent of Geiger counters, the breathing from “Part 1“ is also back. Moanful duo performances - trumpet and trombone, sax and drums - are interspersed amid anxiety and darkness. “Track 4“ quotes the opening of the album again - just to be followed by shock. Cline shredders his guitar sounds, they are contrasted by monstrous horn statements. The tenor saxophone and trumpet dig their way out of the chaos with a melancholic melody, but their is no sweetness, the straight rock rhythm prevents it. The final three minutes of the 17-minute-track are the most structured ones. A series of fanfare-like themes emerge, Japanese folk tunes are processed, heavy metal riffs are propelled by Stomu Takeishi’s bass. Oscar Noriega is responsible for the epilogue in “Part 5“, its beauty seems to offer closure and a certain degree of hope, although we’re very well aware that the world will have to live with the consequences of the disaster for a very long time.

When the orchestra had a dress rehearsal in Brooklyn’s i-beam in May 2015, I was lucky to be there. Listening to the performance (which was a bit shorter than the ultimate recording) the music first sounded programmatic, but Satoko Fujii said that it was nothing like that at all. The music is to reflect the feelings she has about everything that happened in Fukushima that day - anger, frustration, grief, desparation, disappointment, helplessness. It took her five years to process all these emotions, the music is her internal response. The result is this hour-long-suite, moving, tight and expressive.

Fukushima is available as a CD. You can buy it from or from the label

Listen to “Part 1“ here:


Anonymous said...

Great review. Just noticed typo tho: Ellery Eskelin, not Every!

Paul said...

Thanks, fixed!