Desert Ship represents the second outing by Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii's ma-do quartet, following on from the acclaimed Heat Wave (Not Two, 2008). Like its predecessor, this well-recorded studio session presents an eclectic set of nine original compositions in a 57-minute program.
Already with a discography numbering over 60 entries, Fujii has provided a catalog as diverse as it is prolific, ranging from solo to big band by way of everything in between. Her near-constant musical companion, trumpeter and husband Natsuki Tamura, likewise provides a willing foil in ma-do. Erring more towards the free jazz end of the spectrum than some of the pianist's outfits, largely thanks to the flexible all acoustic rhythm section, the foursome on this record brings stellar musicianship to bear on Fujii's idiosyncratic arrangements.
Tamura prefigures the current trumpet whiz kids with his love of tonal distortion, making his horn sigh, weep, chuckle and growlsometimes all within the space of a few minutes. On bass, Norikatsu Koreyasu effortlessly veers from twanging thwacks to wavering harmonics, while drummer Akira Horikoshi is as adept at timbral exploration as he is at pulsing momentum. Though the leader, Fujii highlights her accomplished piano sparingly, but she nonetheless provides the glue that holds together her almost orchestral deployment of resources.
As ever with Fujii's writing, it is impossible to guess the ultimate destination of her charts. Each cut is very different, allowing every band member to shine in varied settings, but within the confines of a group sound where the soloist becomes an intrinsic part of the arrangement. "Nile River" bears eloquent witness: after a stately unison of trumpet and arco bass, Koreyasu breaks away in scratchy, mewling abandon, as the rest of the ensemble continues their measured progress. Similarly, on "Sunset In The Desert," the thunderclap of Horikoshi's hip-hop drums provides a volatile backbone ultimately calmed by Fujii's insistent layering of a romantic piano melody. Hidden among the switchback turns are some attractive tunes, like the tender lilting refrain of the final "Vapour Trail," or the quiet yet forlorn majesty of the title track. The latter is only revealed in full-blown explication after passage of playful half valve effects by Tamura, channeling the ghost of Lester Bowie.
Ma-do excels as one of the pianist's most rewarding outlets. Their last release featured on many best-of-year lists; if there is any justice, this latest offering should repeat that achievement.
Personnel: Satoko Fujii: piano; Natsuki Tamura: trumpet; Norikatsu Koreyasu: bass; Akira Horikoshi: drums.