In addition to numerous small combos, industrious Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii leads four different Orchestras (Kobe, Nagoya, New York, and Tokyo). In honor of her fiftieth birthday, Fujii has released a total of seven albums in 2008. The latest installment includes Chun (Libra), an intimate duet with her husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, and two big band records, Sanrei (Bakamo), by her Orchestra Nagoya, and Summer Suite, the seventh recording by her Orchestra New York, a veritable super group of Downtown improvisers.
Her large ensemble writing encapsulates a wealth of historical innovations on Summer Suite. The muscular riffing of Count Basie, sophisticated harmonies of Carla Bley, zany irreverence of Frank Zappa, and spasmodic freedom of Sun Ra are all fused into a wide-ranging aesthetic. Her cantilevered horn charts employ lush harmonies, thorny contrapuntal themes, and spasmodic free-form interludes in equal measure, yielding a kaleidoscopic panorama.
The rhythm section features drummer Aaron Alexander and fretless electric bassist Stomu Takeishi, who provide an elastic foundation for the massive horn section and individual soloists, as they run through a gamut of tempo changes and rhythmic contours, from careening free bop to rubato excursions that shimmer with crystalline detail. Fujii magnanimously conducts and plays arranger's piano, in order to spotlight her stellar soloists.
The majority of the album is dominated by the titular 39 minute suite, which ebbs and flows dynamically between myriad modes of expression, ranging from pulverizing tutti sections and chaotic collective improvisations to finely honed ensemble arrangements and spacious introspective passages.
Highlights abound throughout the suite. Ellery Eskelin's incisive tenor testimonial, Andy Laster's boisterous baritone excursion, and Joey Seller's unaccompanied trombone cadenza are all notable, as are trombonist Joe Fiedler's confrontational multiphonic discourse with the Orchestra, Herb Robertson's unearthly trumpet abstractions, and Tony Malaby's scorching tenor climax. Interspersed among these vibrant interludes, the horns elicit swirling themes and brawny riffs as they soar over rollicking rhythms and shifting tempos.
The remaining two pieces each offer another facet of Fujii's expressive potential. The cinematic "Sanrei" is a noir-inflected study in extremes that features animated solos from Joe Fiedler and Oscar NoriegaFielder's garrulous trombone sputters through a Sabbathy dirge before Noriega's searing alto soars over a surging, metallic surf vamp. The ebullient closer, "The Town You Don't See On The Map," is an effervescent travelogue that alternates spirited duets between the acerbic saxophones of Briggan Krauss (alto) and Ellery Eseklin (tenor) and the dynamic pairing of Andy Laster's brash baritone and Natsuki Tamura's avant-gutbucket trumpet.
Fujii reinvents the big band tradition, maintaining structural focus with intricate charts and tight arrangements, while still enabling her soloists maximum freedom of expression. Ripe with layers of sonic detail and textural nuance, Summer Suite is an endlessly revealing album, providing new rewards on each listen.
Personnel: Satoko Fujii: piano; Oscar Noriega: alto saxophone; Briggan Krauss: alto saxophone; Ellery Eskelin: tenor saxophone; Tony Malaby: tenor saxophone; Andy Laster: baritone saxophone; Natsuki Tamura: trumpet; Herb Robertson: trumpet; Steve Bernstein: trumpet; Dave Ballou: trumpet; Curtis Hasselbring: trombone; Joey Sellers: trombone; Joe Fiedler: trombone; Stomu Takeishi: bass; Aaron Alexander: drums.