Satoko Fujii creates tone poems on When We Were There, which her quartet uses as stepping stones to enter the world of improvised jazz. Each member, an experienced veteran, turns it loose with unexpected surprises at every corner. At the piano, Fujii romps with quasi-rhythms and mood-changing harmonies. The dissonance and consonance of her pieces overlap, so you're not sure whether the next phrase will proceed with lyrical charms or eerie nightmares.
What makes Fujii's avant-garde music different from most is the restraint that she uses to ensure accessibility. You don't usually get squeaks and squawks from her ensembles. None of her sidemen is out to show off. Fujii's bands use teamwork to interpret her compositions, and the end result is usually filled with lyrical motifs.
Nourishment is a bit harsh. It's a stretch for the four artists, who get excited about their work. The tender lullaby "Nocturne presents a contrast, albeit one with some dissonance. "Sandstorm carries a powerful frenetic impression, while "In Your Dream drifts endlessly through fields of clover. Watch out for that bee!
There are pleasant surprises everywhere. "Inori bares the soul through a lovely melodic encounter, while "The Line of the Heart offers a unique mystery through the nomadic wanderings of Fujii's piano. The quartet closes with "A Diversion, which stands out as the session's longest piece, allowing the quartet sufficient time to get it all in.
Throughout this series of improvisations on a variety of thematic material, each of the four musicians expresses through both standard and unique principles. Trumpeter Natsuki Tamura squeezes notes from his horn through mellow encounters and forceful group therapy. Bassist Mark Dresser plucks and bows low-down and ultra-high harmonics. Drummer Jim Black explores textures that can be found everywhere, but are seldom employed. He makes it work to the band's advantage.
As Fujii steers the ensemble through low left-hand rumbles and through glistening right-hand cascades, each change in direction lets her take the band to a place where things mesh appropriately. As with most of her recordings, this one comes highly recommended.
Personnel: Satoko Fujii: piano; Mark Dresser: double bass; Jim Black: drums; Natsuki Tamura: trumpet.