Click here to [close]

Monday, June 25, 2018

Satoko Fujii - Solo (Libra, 2018) *****

Pianist and composer Satoko Fujii is celebrating her 60th birthday this year. In Japan, turning 60 is a milestone known as kanreki, and Fujii, instead of sticking to the tradition of looking back and reflecting on life so, is forging ahead by releasing an album a month with new projects. Starting in January with Satoko Fujii: Solo, the restless artist has kept to her promise, releasing so far six albums with groups big and small, like the long standing quartet KAZE and the expansive Berlin Orchestra, like clockwork. Starting today, the writers of the Free Jazz Blog will catch up with Fujii's birthday releases and more.

Satoko Fujii - Solo

By Lee Rice Epstein

In contrast with Satoko Fujii’s last solo recording, the double album Invisible Hand, this new one is a concise and stirring reflection. Befitting the straightforward title Solo, Fujii once again displays her command of the instrument. And again, as with Invisible Hand, this recording has come about because of the dedication of a fellow music lover. In this case, thanks are due to Mitsuru Itani, of Matsuyama City, who very much wanted to hear Fujii play a solo concert on a Steinway D274 and who successfully arranged the concert, even getting permission for Fujii to play inside the piano. He mentions, in his liner notes, that “[m]usic flowed unhurriedly from Fujii, who seemed a bit more relaxed than usual even as she maintained just the right tension, conveying the true magic of the piano.” Were it possible, I would end there, because it encapsulates much of what’s special about this album. Yet, there is even more to say, more praise to lavish.

Three songs are repeated from Invisible Hand to Solo: “Inori,” “Spring Storm,” and “Gen Himmel.” On the previous album, “Inori” served as a meditative break, like an actual spring shower, in the middle of the dense second disc. Here, as an opener, it’s more like the stirrings of a pond at first light. Fujii’s attack is slightly bolder, the melody ringing out with what sounds like a touch more sustain. This is followed by “Geradeaus,” an improvised piece that takes great advantage of the sonorities of the D274’s interior. Much like Myra Melford, extended solos from Fujii tend to draw out her deep knowledge and expertise of historical jazz styles. Throughout “Geradeaus,” blues, stride, and even a soulful gospel appear, as recurring rhythmic patterns give shape to the improvisation.

The centerpiece of the album is a trio of 10+ minute classics, “Ninepin,” “Spring Storm,” and “Gen Himmel.” Beginning on the strings inside the piano, Fujii turns “Ninepin,” a piece I’ve only heard her perform with a quartet, completely on its head, turning the piano metaphorically inside out. This 30-minute section that comprises the middle of the album is surely among her finest solo moments. There is patience, a careful and imaginative manipulation of the piano, harsh atonality and surprising pauses intertwined with gorgeous phrasing, and the crystal clarity of Fujii’s approach binding it all together. “Spring Storm” is, right up there with Melford’s “That the Peace,” among the finest piano compositions. Fujii’s compositional language comes through with a sharpness on “Spring Storm,” and her performance here is chillingly alive. It’s strange now to go back and listen to the 2:30 version of “Gen Himmel” from Fujii’s 2013 album, so different are the solo versions she’s released recently. Where the older version is all tension and dissonance, with the piano keys and strings in a duet, this newest version uses silence as a powerful third voice. Throughout the whole album, Fujii’s sense of the hall itself—the acoustics of the stage and airy, resonate quality of the D274—seem to embolden her to abruptly cut of phrases, to sustain chords longer, to play nothing at all for seconds at a time. Closing with a cover of “Moonlight,” by Jimmy Giuffre, Fujii turns the ballad into a reflective ode.

As she turns 60, releasing a dozen albums this year, perhaps something is changing in Satoko Fujii, perhaps her worldview, as evidenced on last year’s Fukushima, is becoming more deeply affected by things beyond her control, or perhaps she’s using her music more directly than before to communicate to us deep and necessary emotional truths. Or, perhaps, nothing at all is changing, and Fujii is simply playing the piano. But of course, she never plays the piano simply, or plainly, for that matter. In Fujii’s music, there is always something more, always another phrase, another pause, another scrape or crackle or minor to reveal itself, in due time.


Chris said...

I've purchased all of Fujii's 2018 releases thus far, and this solo album is easily my favourite of those albums.
Long may she release consistently excellent albums.
Great review too.