Satoko Fujii at the Vortex, London
12 April 2010
When considering marital harmony, the Roman poet Ovid got it right. He said "If you would marry suitably, marry your equal." And that balanced union is exactly what the husband-and-wife team of Satoko Fujii and Natsuki Tamura has achieved. Touching down at north London's Vortex for the first UK date of a short European tour, they affirmed their breathtaking empathy as a duet. Such casually tight communication was not unexpected from a pairing boasting four duo recordings. But of course that doesn't even scratch the surface of their collaborations as both are prolific, with numerous diverse leadership vehicles and side projects, each often involving the other half.
What it lacked in size, the Monday night crowd made up for in attentiveness, mesmerized by the fertile give and take on display. So hushed was the room that you could hear a pin drop, or to veer from cliché to reality, the overtones from Tamura's brassy explosions reverberating inside the Vortex Steinway. At the end of the first set Fujii was moved to chat effusively of her love for the Vortex and its listening audience.
Even though they were only two, the deft arrangements and in-the-moment invention took on orchestral dimensions where breathy trumpet slur or answering piano arpeggio was weighted with intent. Of their duo albums, In Krakow, In November (Not Two Records, 2007) and Chun (Libra, 2008) give the best insight into the live performance. Fujii and Tamura's conception defies category, drawing on elements of jazz, contemporary classical and free improvisation, mixed according to their distinctive sensibilities. If anything the second set was wilder and more spirited than the first as works were run together in unbroken suites with extended passages of extemporization. Though it was clear that idiosyncratic compositional structures framed the interaction, such was the space and inclination for dazzling creation that the demarcations between the written and improvised became not so much blurred as irrelevant.
Behind the piano, Fujii evinced a wonderfully individual sense of time, initially sedate and measured but stretching it out in the second piece of the evening with suspenseful pauses, like a dislocated tango, to keep the listener off balance. Expanding her range of expression, she also delved under the bonnet, using sticks, mallets, fingers and even sticky tape on the strings, to manipulate and distort the piano's signature.
Tamura's prowess on trumpet is underrated. He predates the current resurgence heralded by young masters like Peter Evans, Nate Wooley and Taylor Ho Bynum, sitting more comfortably alongside mavericks from the previous generation such as Herb Robertson. While capable of phrasing with beauty and poise, he also revels in a variety of techniques: breath sounds, whistles, whinnies and low growls. At one point he placed just the mouthpiece in his cupped hands to create a panoply of high pitched wah wah vocalizations.
However in tandem they were greater than the sum of their parts. Supporting evidence came thick and fast. To start one piece Fujii stuck blu-tack on the piano strings, dampening them to produce gamelan sonorities as she played. Tamura completed the illusion, blowing microtones for a wonderful passage of non-western music extracted from their tempered instruments. Other highlights were the pianist's fiendishly intricate "Ninepin," where the trumpeter phrased as if continually trying to catch up but never quite managing. Essayed without charts, as were all the tunes, they showed preternatural connectivity, moving seemingly randomly in and out of tempo, but always hitting the unisons on cue. Tamura's "Explorer" was recast as a cartoonish madcap dash with whimsical brass flourishes, provoking some wild tangential leaps from Fujii, sounding positively Cecil Tayloresque as she attacked the keyboard with the heel and flats of her hands. All told it was an enthralling evening's music: a perfect marriage of personal lexicons and superior material.