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Monday, April 4, 2022

Satoko Fujii and Joe Fonda – Thread of Light (FSR, 2022) ****

By Troy Dostert

If there’s a silver lining to the many ways in which COVID has challenged the musical community, it can be found in the opportunities it has given musicians to rethink the creative process. Case in point: pianist Satoko Fujii and bassist Joe Fonda decided in early 2021 to make a duo album that would be jointly improvised, but made asynchronously, with Fujii’s parts recorded first at her home in Kobe, Japan, and Fonda’s contributions laid atop Fujii’s later in New York.

The nature of this project raises interesting questions about the dynamics of free improvisation, particularly given that Fonda acknowledges having “studied” Fujii’s tracks extensively before adding his own parts to the mix. A spirit of spontaneity and risk can no longer be fully present under such circumstances—but does that render the final product any less “free”? Should the fact that these duets are so well-calibrated and precise (and the music here is very technically accomplished, as one would expect from these superlative musicians), without the pauses, hesitations, and mis-connections that are always a byproduct of even the finest freely-improvised outings, lead us to regard this music as somehow less valuable or noteworthy than “conventional” free recordings? While these are certainly questions to ponder, they take nothing away from what is by any reasonable estimation fifty minutes of excellently-played music, crafted with care by two masters of their respective instruments.

Fonda and Fujii are no strangers to one another, having released three duo albums (Duet, Mizu, and Four) just since 2016, in addition to a variety of projects in other formations. It’s not a surprise, then, that Fonda has such a keen appreciation for Fujii’s aesthetic and how to respond sympathetically to it. Whether on languid, deliberately-paced reflections like the opener, “Kochi,” or the cascading phrases that make up “Fallen Leaves Dance,” Fujii’s piano could easily stand on its own—but Fonda unfailingly determines how best to complement it, adding something inherently valuable in each instance. Importantly, Fonda doesn’t overplay here: the mysterious abstraction of the nine-minute closer, “Between Blue Sky and Cold Water,” leaves plenty of room for silence, and Fonda respects it, using his perfect arco technique as the ideal foil for Fujii’s spartan musings and her exploration of the piano’s innards. But on a more animated track, like the sprightly “Sekirei,” Fonda matches Fujii’s exuberance with plenty of his own energy, with back-and-forth gestures that remind us that what is taking place is, after all, a dialogue, albeit an atypical one among musicians who would much rather be having their conversation together, in the same room and in the moment.

Thread of Light may not be the optimal setting for these first-rate improvisers—hearing them in a spontaneous encounter will remain this reviewer’s preference—but the beauty of the music is undeniable, and Fujii and Fonda deserve kudos for seeking a new outlet for their irrepressible creativity.


Unknown said...

A good romance of death be night.

Ken Blanchard said...

This music is so gorgeous! Thanks, Troy, for an excellent review and a wonderful recommendation. Now I propose that a year or so from now, Fonda should send Fujii just his bass parts. She can then record new music over them. Just sayin'.

ps. You can't have too many Satoko Fujii recordings.

Anonymous said...

That sounds fair to me, Ken - plus it would be another opportunity to hear these two together. They do have a terrific chemistry!