When We Were There is the first studio album by pianist Satoko Fujii's new quartet. Her long-running trio with bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Jim Black was recently augmented on 2004's Live In Japan (MTCJ) by her husband and frequent collaborator, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura. Eschewing the long form, multipart compositions she is known for, she shifts her focus towards shorter, more concise pieces on this session (her eighth with Dresser and Black).
Equally proficient at inside and outside techniques, Fujii's playing ranges from driving pneumatic tone clusters to delicate neo-classical flourishes. Natsuki Tamura is a sympathetic partner; his caterwauling cries and ghostly musings have accompanied her in every conceivable lineup, from duo to full orchestra.
A formidable bassist, Mark Dresser's approach is sonically adventurous but structurally cohesive. His arco work is particularly exemplary. Jim Black's impishly volatile drumming vacillates from thunderous palpitations to spectral washes. Together, they weave a rich tapestry of interlocking polyrhythms and exotic textures.
Composed with a single formal element in mind for each individual piece, the album veers dynamically from one aspect to another. Only the lengthy closer, "A Diversion," embodies the sort of epic sweep Fujii typically employs. Improvising within such parameters, the quartet finds the heart of each tune, exploring every challenge with knowing finesse and empathetic interplay.
The opening salvo of "Sandstorm" is a riotous fanfare, the parallel opposite of the subtle tone poem "In Your Dream." The restrained grace of "Nocturne" befits its title, while "Inori" is a tender, heartfelt ballad. The title track employs the sort of resounding pop melodicism Fujii has absorbed from her work with pianist Paul Bley. Playing rich, repeated chordal refrains, Fujii drives the piece with dramatic flair as the rhythm section accents her variations with freewheeling verve.
"An Excursion" traffics in similar territory. Fujii's nuanced phrasing and Tamura's soaring trumpet forge a gorgeous melody, elevated by Dresser's sprightly melodic bass pizzicato and Black's supple polyrhythms. Conversely, "Nourishment" ripples with nervous energy, unfurling waves of percussive force.
Bolstered by the stellar contributions of her bandmates, each tune highlights a different facet of Satoko Fujii's writing, making When We Were There a brilliant summation of her gifts as both composer and improviser.
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Personnel: Satoko Fujii: piano; Natsuki Tamura: trumpet; Mark Dresser: bass; Jim Black: drums.