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Saturday, June 30, 2018

This Is It! - 1538 (Libra, 2018) ****½

By Eric McDowell

Is it her long history of worldwide collaboration or the masterful range of her personal style that makes Satoko Fujii’s body of work so difficult to summarize? It doesn’t help that she’s always been prolific, too, putting out albums as a leader and as a contributor under a number of different names and with a number of different groups, from her intimate duos with her husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, to jazz trios with the likes of Mark Dresser and Jim Black, to international big bands like Orchestra New York, whose recent Fukushima is essential listening. And of course in 2018, the year of her 60th birthday, she’s upped the pace almost to Ivo Perelman levels, releasing one new album a month.

What are listeners to do? Take things one at a time, of course—the way they were created. No matter which Satoko Fujii you start by approaching, you’re bound to find traces of all the others emerging as the music unfolds. Libra’s June Fujii release, 1538 by the This Is It! trio—the pianist and Tamura with Takashi Itani on drums—is a perfect example.

The album begins where others might climax with an intensely focused and emotionally devastating nine-minute improvisation. But for this group, it’s merely a gathering of forces: Tamura’s strained, rasping trumpet; Itani’s clattering drum kit; Fujii’s turbulent low end somehow both spurring the tempest on and keeping it grounded. An all-out exercise in catharsis, “1538” is a bold opening move—but perhaps one befitting a trio called This Is It! Or maybe they’re just playing with our expectations, since the follow-up track, “Prime Number,” finds them in an altogether new mode, with Tamura leaving extended-technique textures behind for bright, stabbing notes that set the stage as Itani and Fujii join in with their own staccato stylings. Having not only this range but also this sensitivity in common is key in Fujii’s music, which asks its interpreters to be as able to lead a free improvisation as to follow a jagged ostinato, as the trio does partway through “Prime Number.”
Fujii’s music is also about making space for her collaborators. On “Climb the Rapids,” Tamura takes advantage of the spotlight to craft warm lines of round notes that roll together like marbles, while “Riding on the Clouds” shows a new, gentler side, Tamura drawing silver threads across Fujii’s delicate arpeggios. That same track shows Takashi’s facility with extended techniques as he bows his cymbals like the group’s missing bassist. And “Swoop” is nothing less than a true drum feature, with Takashi’s full range on display, from near-infrasonic mallet-playing to pitch-bending in the style of the great drummer-tricksters to grooving through stop-start trumpet-piano ostinatos.

The closing track runs back through all the group’s personas, starting once more with textural abstractions before pivoting into the realm of rhythm and melody. Perhaps this means “Yozora” might have made more sense at the beginning of the album, where it could have taught us how to listen to the rest. But that might have made us lazy or softened our ears. And this is music that deserves to be heard with full attention—with the understanding that no matter what we’re hearing, “this is it!”