How we rate: our writers tend to review music they like within their preferred genres.
There are several outstanding qualities that emerge in pianist Satoko Fujii's big band writing. She has an extraordinarily sense of color that plays upon the moist exquisiteness of muted shades, as well as recognizing and utilizing the vivid ends of her palette of colors. She also combines ingenious use of the timbre of various elements of a big bandbrass, reeds and woodwinds, strings that replicate the rhythmic nature of the piano and those in the lowest register, and brilliant use of percussion coloring. She combines all of this like a visual artist working on a gigantic canvas, infusing it with unique color and ensuring that it remains wet so that it appears to change shape and hue every time it presents its arresting sight to the inner eye. On Zakopane, she throws in her ability to spice things up by blending palettes the way a master chef blends exotic herbs. The result is a dish so wild and flaming that it burns with the fever of artistic fission.
The four trumpets and three trombones combine varied persuasions, from the unexpected flavors of warmth and earthiness to the wildly unpredictable shrieks, honks, snorts and smears of almost interstellar origin. Five woodwinds break every barrier, from the staid to the farthest end of the sound spectrum. Fujii employs guitar to occupy the space of her absent piano, and then demands it traverse the outer perimeter of that stringed instrumentat times as far, if not farther, as guitarists like Sonny Sharrock
On Zakopaneat least, bassist Toshiki Nagata stands rock steady behind the band, but is also called upon to swing with sensuous abandon from time to timesoloing, on "Inori," with character and succinct melody. Drummer Akira Horikoshi creates a porous sheet of sound behind the canvas where brass and woodwinds cast their colors, but rattles both perceived and actual canvases by throwing caution to the winds at every turn, coming up with rhythmic swells on which the other members of the band can bob, pitch and roll.
Zakopane contains some of the finest big band writing ever, like on the sweeping and vivid title tune. Yet it can also be exacting ("Negotiation Steps"), or undulating and mysterious ("Desert Ship"), when Fujii's husband, Natsuki Tamura
weaves his wistful trumpet around the ululations of Sachi Hayasaka's soprano saxophone. The miraculous and magical elements combine to provide splendid prospects of color in "Tropical Fish" and "Trout," and there is a myriad other examples of unbridled genius on an album that should surely be on "best of the big band" listings for 2010.
The absence of Fujii's virtuoso piano on Zakopane is felt at times, but then the rich nature of the album compensates. She distinguishes herself further by telling stories as masterfully in music as director Akira Kurosawa does with film and Toshiro Mifune does through acting.