Nobody does the piano trio thing like Satoko Fujii. Almost every other effort out there in this category can be related to Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner... to name just a few. With Fujii, the sound is a category of its own. Free, to be sure, with classical tinges, an the occasional influence of rockthough this is more apparent in her quartet work.
I'll flip-flop here (to use a currently popular verb): though my first experience with Fujii was her trio work on Junction (Ewe, '01), I'd recently formed the opinion that the pianist's best sound was to be found on her quartet outings: Minerva, Vulcan, and Zephros, all out within the past two years on NatSat Recordsshe is nothing if not prolific. The driving propulsion of the rhythm section, her collaborator Natsuki Tamura's brazen trumpet work, her own unpredictable free-flung piano forays always make for a bracing listening experience.
Illusion Suite changes my mind on her best format, bringing her back to her less intense, more meditative trio workwith bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Jim Blackand the music herein has risen to an entirely different level.
The thirty-four minute title tune evolves masterfully, beginning in a somber, classical mood, bowed bass in front of introspective piano interjections; and then five minutes in, things bounce into a rubbery groove, without a lapse in continuity or logic, amazingly; but then perhaps that's what a "suite" is all about. Moods and tempos change, trio members move forward and back in the sound, and things remain riveting for the duration.
I recently watched a video of a Thelonious Monk perfomance. At times Monk would stare at the keyboard as the rhythm churned on, hands in his lap, and thenas if prodded by an electrical chargehe would stab out at the keyboard, adding the perfect sudden notes to the song. Fujii, in her own animated way, does the same thing. She must be something to watch.
Fujii's longer pieces have always seemed more satisfying: "Warp" and "Caught in a Web" from Minerva ; "Silence" and "Slowly and Slowly" from Bell the Cat. With the very extended "Illusion Suite" her themes are able to unfold in natural fashion. For these ears, Duke Ellington's Suites were the crowning of his artistic vision, and one wonder's if Fujii will go in that direction. This is a very auspicious leaning that way.
Bassist Dresser and drummer Black are more incorporated into the sound here, and that, in part, is why Illusion Suite surpasses (no small feat) Fujii's previous trio work, or anything else she's done. The entire set has an inspired feel to it, especially Jim Black's unconventional percussion modesthe sounds of tromping on floors and slamming of doors, sleigh bells, and manic snare attacks.
Satoko Fujii's vision has come into a sharp focus here, on a set of sounds that feels like a nourishment for the soul. Her best, a top ten disc of 2004, for sure.