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Wednesday, January 2, 2019

A Year (or 60) in the Making: Satoko Fujii's *Kanreki*

                                                                               Satoko Fujii (Photo Peter Gannushkin)

By Lee Rice Epstein

  • Satoko Fujii - Solo (Libra, 2018) 
  • Kaze - Atody Man (Libra, 2018) 
  • Satoko Fujii Orchestra Berlin - Ninety-Nine Years (Libra, 2018) 
  • Kira Kira - Bright Force (Libra, 2018) 
  • Satoko Fujii, Joe Fonda, Gianni Mimmo - Triad (Long Song Records, 2018) 
  • This Is It! - 1538 (Libra, 2018) 
  • Satoko Fujii / Joe Fonda - Mizu (Long Song Records, 2018) 
  • Mahobin - Live at Big Apple in Kobe (Libra, 2018) 
  • Satoko Fujii / Alister Spence - intelsat (Alister Spence Music, 2018) 
  • Amu - Weave (Libra, 2018) 
  • Yuko Yamaoka - Diary 2005–2015 Yuko Yamaoka plays the music of Satoko Fujii (Libra, 2018) 
  • Satoko Fujii Orchestra Tokyo - Kikoeru (Libra, 2018) 
You should know, I recently got mad online about Satoko Fujii. Here’s why: at the end of a full year of exceptional releases by Fujii, a celebration of her 60th year, a handful of notable music journalists were droning on about John Coltrane and Kamasi Washington. And so, see above. Surely, I imagine, Fujii herself isn’t paying attention, because in 2018 she was too busy recording and releasing some of the most exciting albums of her career. We wrote about half of them at the year’s midpoint. And I spent several days this month listening to all of this year’s albums almost exclusively. What I came away with is the sense that even Fujii may have underestimated this project; as a song of self, her kanreki also provided her with an avenue for expansion and rediscovery. The albums by Kaze, Orchestra Berlin, and Orchestra Tokyo are among the best those groups have ever recorded. And then there are the new groups, Kira Kira, Mahobin, This Is It! and Amu. There is Fujii’s incredible new solo album, and the birth of a new duo with Alister Spence. And Fujii’s continued collaboration with bassist Joe Fonda, bringing the great Gianni Mimmo into the mix.

 It’s one thing to record a series of albums, quite another to release, all within a year, a dozen that could easily compete for best album of the year. Personally, if one had to rank them, I was most taken with the debut albums from Kira Kira and Mahobin, and the exceptional Diary 2005–2015 double album by Yuko Yamaoka. But truthfully, every album Fujii released this year ranked high on my personal list. Atody Man, Ninety-Nine Years, and Kikoeru have been in heavy rotation since arriving. For one, the groups are so refined, with a clear musical language that fosters creative conversation. Undoubtedly, Kaze is one of the great modern jazz quartets, and following their foray into the jumbo-sized Trouble Kaze, Atody Man features some inspired and challenging performances. On the newly-released Kikoeru, Fujii splits composing duties with trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, her husband and full-time collaborator. His new compositions for Fujii’s Orchestra Tokyo present a different side to the group and its musical arrangements. Despite their decades of close collaboration, their compositional styles are quite different, which adds an extra dimension of excitement and alluring moments of surprise to the album.

Mahobin reunites Fujii and Tamura with Ikue Mori, whom they previously recorded with on Aspiration, with Wadada Leo Smith. This time, the trio performs with Lotte Anker on saxophone for an improvised set, recorded live in Kobe earlier this year. Anker is incredible here (truly, when isn’t she incredible?), leading an early trio improvisation with Mori and Fujii, whose collective melding of electronics and inside-outside piano creates a thicket of percussive sounds and melodic runs. Compare with the remarkably different atmosphere created in duo with Spence, on their live album intelsat, recorded in fall of 2017. On the mid-album highlight “Paaliaq,” Spence and Fujii pair Rhodes, piano preparations, and electronic pulses into a layered and organic dance.

Of course, on the subject of literal dance, Fujii, Tamura, and percussionist Takashi Itani, who recorded earlier this year as This Is It!, recorded Weave with percussive dancer, and frequent Fujii collaborator, Mizuki Wildenhahn. As Amu, this is another of Fujii’s brand-new configurations recorded for her kanreki series. While it may sound cheeky, Itani could easily be considered a dancing percussionist, an inverted counterpart to Wildenhahn. A visually and sonically expressive performer, Itani has been a welcome addition to Fujii and Tamura’s particular universe of sounds. Tamura, notably, plays some lovely solos throughout this improvised set, and the physical energy of the performers is effectively channeled through their performance. Note: there is video of this set available as a DVD, which I have not seen but which, based on the audio, must be pretty wonderful. Although the three improvisations on Mizu, Fujii’s second duo album with Fonda, are presented in the reverse order they were recorded—“Rik Bevernage” and “Long Journey” is from October 14, 2017, and “Mizu” from October 13, 2017—the intentional sequencing highlights the development of multiple themes and explorations. In addition to piano, preparations, and bass, Fujii and Fonda incorporate wordless vocals and flute in two moving sets. The liner notes mention how “Mizu” is something of a tribute to Paul Bley, and the balanced delicacy and tense drama are among the finest of Fujii’s solo and duo recordings.

Diary 2005–2015 presents a unique and rather incredible view of Fujii as a composer. Fujii writes about her past warm-up and practice rituals, and how she began her composition diary, a 15-minute improvising/composing session Fujii uses to begin her daily piano practice. Recorded over two days this summer, Diary is an incredible collection of 118 short pieces, most under a minute, all performed seemingly as-written directly from Fujii’s diary. Yamaoka, who previously appeared in Fujii’s Orchestra New York, brings a subtly different voicing to Fujii’s sketches, the slight changes in approach and attack reframing the lines into a cohesive set that draws a through line from January 28, 2005, to March 13, 2016. As a capstone to this landmark year, Diary highlights the many ways in which Fujii is a remarkable composer, improviser, and performer, balancing all three at once, with a radically open and inviting worldview.


Stef said...

Thanks Lee, nice update on Fujii's prolific year. She has again demonstrated her broad vision on stylistic possibilities. And true, many music journalists unfortunately stay in the small sandbox of what their readers expect, instead of going where the music is going.

Anonymous said...

Thank you! Is there any chance the whole year will be released as a box set?

Stef said...

Now that's a good idea. Let's ask Satoko.

Braithwaite and Katz said...

I love that boxed set idea!

Anonymous said...

For the benefit of the unenlightened, Braithwaite and Katz is the US agency that organizes publicity for Libra Records.