Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii's artistic restlessness is given full flower on Fujin Raijin, her first album of Min'yo compositions. Classically trained, Fujii is one of today's most eclectic jazz figures, leading ensembles that range from intimate chamber duos to full-sized big bands. Long fascinated by the emotional directness of Min'yo (traditional Japanese folk music), Fujii finally takes the plunge with a mix of traditional and original pieces.
Fujii is joined by her usual foil, husband and trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, and two New Yorkerstrombonist Curtis Hasselbring and accordionist Andrea Parkins. Tamura's acoustic Gato Libre ensemble, featuring Fujii on accordion, traffics in conceptually similar territory. Where Gato Libre mines European folk traditions with bucolic moderation, Fujii's Min-Yoh ensemble explores a similar but more impassioned variation on Japanese folk tunes.
At its core, Min'yo is utilitarian folk music, often used to accompany labor with call and response structures, similar in a sense to the Negro Spirituals of the American South. Fujii opens and closes the album with her own arrangements of traditional Min'yo pieces, which flow seamlessly into the originals.
Fujii's pieces unfold gradually, moving at an unhurried pace. Unimpeded by a traditional rhythm section, the quartet plies rubato rhythms with elastic finesse and regal patience. Developments arrive episodically with modulations in dynamic intensity. The quartet trades pregnant silences and whispered musings one moment, ascending into ebullient polyphony the next, only to drift back into the ether again.
Drawing heavily on free jazz conventions, the quartet members regularly employ a variety of extended techniques for maximum expression. Fujii plays inside the piano, scraping her strings, Tamura juggles mutes and half-vale effects, Parkin's accordion wheezes sub-harmonic tones that sound like electronic transmissions and Hasselbring delivers blurred lines of blustery urgency.
Blending the buoyant optimistic anthems and yearning sorrow of folk music with the turbulent drama of free jazz, Fujin Raijin is a singular experiment in crossing Japanese traditional music with western concepts of the avant-garde. A fascinating record; one never expects anything less from Satoko Fujii.
Personnel: Satoko Fujii: piano; Natsuki Tamura: trumpet; Curtis Hasselbring: trombone; Andrea Parkins: accordion.