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Big in Japan, Part 3: Satoko Fujii’s Year of Living Dangerously


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My grandmother…told me that she heard some beautiful music all the time after she had lost her hearing. I asked her to explain but she couldn't. I would like to make…the music that nobody has heard before.
—Satoko Fujii
In the first two parts of this series we looked at the origins of jazz in Japan and its adherence to the American style of composing, arranging and playing. Though jazz has been popular in Japan from the earliest days, it was—as in the United States—hardly met with unanimous approval in a country that prized classical and indigenous folk music. Yamada Kôsaku, Japan's best-known composer and conductor of the '20s through the '40s, disparaged jazz as "noisy and obscene." The American press was often critical of early jazz, so some perspectives in their second-hand reporting of the phenomenon in Japan are likely to be biased. The Japanese press's reaction to the music likely rose and fell with political prescriptions but direct documents are inaccessible. Some reactions are described in archival newspaper passages.

In its article "Jazz Interests Japan More Than League," The New York Herald of April 11, 1921 said "Infection of Frivolity Spreads Over Country...American jazz is making the world safe for dance maniacs...Human beings are after all a frivolous bunch, and apparently take greater delight in the 'shimmy' and fox trot than in a discussion concerning the world peace and democracy. At least, this is what is taking place among the people of the Mikado's empire." Washington, DC's Evening Star of November 30, 1924 reported a "Ban On Jazz In Japan...Following the closing of all dance halls, Tokio [sic], Japan, banned all jazz music, starting the drive by confiscating all known phonograph records of jazz." The same newspaper's edition of November 18, 1930, reporting on "Jazz In Japan," notes that "Japanese jazz, founded upon the American article, has been raging in the islands of the Rising Sun. Educators and thinking persons of the country are becoming alarmed...many Japanese girls have developed a fondness for all the flapper ways..."

The immediate post-World War II years saw a rapid comeback of jazz music and a mirror reaction from cultural spheres of the '20s. These criticisms were buffered by the American occupation of the islands. By the late '50s native artists appeared with more frequency and the American brand of mainstream jazz shared the stage with hard bop, emerging free jazz and avant-garde music. Drummer Hideo Shiraki became a well-known hard bop player in the '50s and '60s, later becoming one of the first Japanese musicians to incorporate traditional music into his compositions. Pianist Yosuke Yamashita employs his hybrid of free and modal jazz, and has led a group with bassist Cecil McBee, drummer Pheeroan AkLaff and saxophonist Joe Lovano. In 1973, Yamashita made a personal statement when he performed on a piano while it was engulfed in flames. Pianist Masahiko Satoh began recording in the '60s and has worked with Anthony Braxton, Joëlle Léandre, Peter Brötzmann, Ken Vandermark and Paal Nilssen-Love. Pianist Makoto Ozone recorded extensively with Gary Burton, Teruo Nakamura, and Roy Haynes. Many of these Japanese artists have studied in and migrated to the United States. Multi-instrumentalist, composer and bandleader Satoko Fujii has maintained a home in Tokyo and New York while covering much of the globe.

Satoko Fujii

Fujii is one of the leading composers in music, a unique voice on piano and accordion, and a seemingly endless source of ideas. Constantly experimenting with concepts, timbres, and techniques, her music is genre-less and fearless. The Tokyo native began playing piano as a toddler and studied classical music through her teen years. In 1985 she began studying at Boston's Berklee College of Music and returned to Boston in the mid-'90s to study at the New England Conservatory. Her mentors at NEC included George Russell, Cecil McBee, and Paul Bley. Bley played piano duets on Fujii's debut release Something About Water (Libra, 1996). The following year she formed her New York trio with bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Jim Black releasing seven albums. With the addition of Fujii's husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, in 2004 the trio transformed into the Satoko Fujii Four.

Fujii and Tamura embarked on their ongoing duo formation near the end of the '90s. Occasionally referred to as the NATSAT Project, the pair have released six albums on Libra: How Many? (1997), Clouds (2002), In Krakow, In November (2006), Chun (2008), Muku (2012), and Kisaragi (2017). For all the warmth of these ventures, Fujii and Tamura are masters of technique and do not approach their music with an aspiration of accessibility.

During that time, Fujii also formed her namesake quartet with Tamura, bassist Takeharu Hayakawa, and drummer Tatsuya Yoshida. At the same time Fujii and Tamura joined trumpeter Itaru Oki's sextet with saxophonist Keizo Nobori, bassist Hiroshi Funato, and drummer Jin Mitsuda. Both Fujii's quartet and Oki's sextet play a unique synthesis of jazz, rock, blues and traditional Japanese folk.

Fujii formed The Min-Yoh Ensemble in 2006, which included Tamura, trombonist Curtis Hasselbring, and accordionist Andrea Parkins. This quartet specialized in melding improvisation and native Japanese influences. In 2007, she established Ma-Do, another quartet playing in a warmer setting. In 2013, she formed the Satoko Fujii New Trio. Her undefinable but largely abstract quartet Kaze released their first album in 2011, later expanding with dual pianos and drums into the band Trouble Kaze.

While recording in over two dozen formations may seem to be the picture of structural uncertainty, Fujii's personnel—particularly in her large ensembles—tell a different story. The composer's open style of improvisation extends to her band members and benefits from a core rotation with a lengthy history supporting her. In the mid-'90s, Fujii's Orchestra New York and Orchestra Tokyo were playing the same selections while the bandleader was noting their different readings. Her knowledge of each musician's sound and style leads her to compose with the particular strengths of her various groups in mind. Over the past two decades, Fujii has amassed a catalog of one-off and limited projects. She has recorded and performed with Myra Melford, Misha Mengelberg, Mark Feldman, Carla Kihlstedt, Joe Fonda and several other artists.

A Life in Music

Interviewing Fujii in early 2018, she began by recalling how her mother acquiesced to young Fujii's request to bypass kindergarten for a music education. "My mother is a music lover who enjoys classical music, especially opera. So music was already there when I was born. I was very shy and couldn't play with other kids when I was little. I asked my parents not to let me go to kindergarten. My mother put me in a piano class instead because she thought it was better for me to have some social connection rather than just staying home. Before I started classical music, I had improvised with a piano in my home. I had great time improvising. I could improvise forever imaging many stories. After I studied classical music for ten years, I could no longer improvise. I couldn't play anything if I didn't have music in front of me. I was very shocked because I remember what a great time I had improvising when I was little. I felt like a well-trained dog that could do anything by command but nothing spontaneously. I stopped playing piano for a while and started improvising using my voice. It was easier for me because I didn't feel like I had to play in the same way as my education. Around the same time, I started listening to jazz and went to many jazz clubs. I became a big fan of Fumio Itabashi, a great Japanese jazz pianist. I remembered how much I loved playing piano. I asked him for some lessons. Since jazz is music with a lot of improvisation, I thought that might be good music for me because I wanted to improvise."

When Fujii was in her twenties she moved to Boston to study at Berklee and then at New England Conservatory. "I entered Berklee when I was 26. I took an airplane for the first time, left Japan for the first time, and I had a big cultural shock! At the same time, I found some American ways that helped me play music. Americans encourage by saying something good. Japanese people don't do that as much. Japanese people and culture are very humble. They point out things we cannot do, instead of what we can do and saying good things. Making music in America was easier for me than in Japan."

After Berklee, Fujii played straight-ahead jazz at local clubs. When asked if she was content playing traditional jazz early in her career or eager to set her own course from the beginning, she responded "From the beginning of my jazz experience, I always loved free-form jazz. When I was in high school, I began to listen to jazz. I couldn't enjoy bebop but I was so moved by John Coltrane's A Love Supreme. Before Berklee, I was already a professional musician in Japan, playing in cabaret house big bands that played Count Basie and Duke Ellington. So I was already playing traditional and straight-ahead jazz. When I graduated from Berklee, I tried to do everything, playing in many styles. But I always loved free-form jazz and improvised music."

Fujii's first solo recording, Something About Water (Libra, 2008) included duo performances with her former teacher, Paul Bley. "Studying with Paul Bley was the biggest thing for me. I studied with him for two years but we spent more time talking than playing piano. Talking with him changed my ideas one hundred percent. I began to feel much easier playing my music and accepting myself. My husband Natsuki Tamura is also a big influence. He has a very different way to make music and is totally free. We have the same values but are still very different."

Fujii uses elements of melody, free improvisation, extended techniques and silence whether she is composing for one of her orchestras, for duos with Tamura, or formations that fall somewhere between. Her approach to composing in those different settings is wide open. "I don't like to limit myself when I make music. I don't take a different approach for different groups. I like to use whatever I want in any format." Her compositions often begin with only minimal structures and she then trusts her fellow musicians to develop their own ideas around those structures. "I trust my collaborators one hundred percent and I like to hear how they play my music. Most times, I enjoy whatever they play. I am not worried what is going to be. I just have strong ideas and great musicians can feel and share them."

Fujii spontaneously changes rhythm and tempo within pieces that may have only slight organization, which makes her music so interesting and challenging to listeners and her fellow musicians. Asked if she uses any means of telegraphing her intentions to the group so they can adjust, she explains "I have a difficult time if musicians only read music. I had a hard time when I started playing my music with my Orchestra Tokyo. But now they play it easily. For me, it is like breathing or singing. When I explain it to my bandmates, I sometimes use words. On one piece, 'Clear Sky (For Christopher),' the time is very tricky, but it can be easy with Japanese words: 'A-shi-ta-Ha-re-te-Ka-ra-Ku-mo-ri' is 11 (3+3+2+3) syllables and means 'It will be cloudy after sunny tomorrow.'"

Regional Influences and indigenous instruments in jazz are easy to find in areas such as Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Celtic countries, and Scandinavian and Nordic regions. Some Japanese artists better known in the West, such as Sadao Watanabe, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Eri Yamamoto, Aki Takase, Yosuke Yamashita, and Toshinori Kondo, are primarily identified for playing in a variety of jazz styles already familiar to Western audiences. Fujii sees an innate cultural link with more traditional Japanese folk sources in her own compositions: "We Japanese all have our culture behind or inside us. Even without trying to use traditional Japanese elements, we already put Japanese 'something' in our music. It may be not easy to find. I tried to put some of those elements into my Min-You Ensemble. For me, it is more important to carry our culture spiritually rather than just elements like scales or rhythms."

Among some musicians, the term "jazz" is often eschewed in favor of alternative labels or none. Asked if she thinks in terms of genre, Fujii says "I think I am a jazz musician. I believe jazz is a music that we cannot find in any museum. Jazz is free to get any kind of influence and alive, not fixed in one shape or style. I think jazz has this spirituality and that I inherit this spirituality. In this way, I think I am a mainstream jazz musician. But if you see jazz as a musical style, I might not be a jazz musician. I have actually had many experiences where someone told me that that I don't play jazz. I was in Larry Ochs' band when the "Spanish Police Incident" happened (in which a patron demanded his money back and called police because he felt Ochs's group was playing "contemporary music" and not jazz)! Anyway, I don't care what people call my music."


In Japanese, the word "kanreki" signifies a sixtieth birthday. "Kan" means circulate and "reki" is a calendar. This full-circle analogy arose when living until sixty represented a typical lifetime. With Satoko Fujii, time is an asterisk since she seems to be on an upward trajectory. There is little in her creative process that feels symmetrical or overly prescribed. There was considerable enthusiasm around Fujii's yearlong project to release one album each month. The concept is fraught with uneven expectations but, in Fujii's capable hands, it was a marathon of surprises without a single musical cliché.

The 2018 project was bookended by a solo piano release and an orchestral album. Solo (Libra, 2018) is only the fourth such outing for this exceedingly prolific artist and it set a high bar for the year. The album was recorded at Yawatahama City Cultural Hall in Japan and contains seven pieces, including spontaneous improvisations, one standard, and selections from Fujii's Libra label songbook. In sharp contrast, the year ended with the Fujii's Orchestra Tokyo release Kikoeru -Tribute to Masaya Kimura (Libra, 2018). The album is a cathartic tribute to lives that have touched the composer and been integral to her music, particularly the late tenor saxophonist Masaya Kimura, a member of Orchestra Tokyo for over ten years. It is the sixth recording from Fujii's Tokyo collective and its most powerful and accessible entry.

Between January and December of 2018, Fujii produced a body of work of such eclectic quality that it would be impressive had it taken place over years. In May she followed up on her album Duet (Long Song, 2016) with her first time playing alongside bassist Joe Fonda, the two barely familiar with each other's music. With Triad (also on Long Song), the duo expanded by adding Italian saxophonist Gianni Mimmo, whose music was also unfamiliar to both Fujii and Fonda. Triad differs from much of Fujii's work in that themes rarely stray far from their core ideas, especially in shorter pieces. The album is balanced between meditative works such as "Accidental Partner" and the boisterous performances like "Joe Melts the Water Boiler." There is no shortage of either hypnotically discreet moments or wildly swinging passages. Later in the year, Fonda and Fujii proved that the chemistry on Duet was not an accident when they reteamed for Mizu (also on Long Song). The collection features three extended works and the surprise here may be the hints of classicism and overall reflectiveness of these improvisations.

Fujii released Diary 2005-2015: Yuko Yamaoka Plays the Music of Satoko Fujii (Libra) in November 2018. Yuko Yamaoka, a pianist and teacher at the Yamaha Music School in California, was chosen to interpret 118 compositional exercises developed by Fujii as part of her regular practice routine. Fujii notes that her decision to have Yamaoka play on the album stems from her need to record as an improviser. Yamaoka communicates in a vernacular of simplicity, bringing Fujii's ideas to life with uncommon clarity and control without losing the spontaneity that produced the original concepts. Many of these tracks are twenty seconds or less, with a few approaching two minutes. Fujii notes that sometimes a full-fledged composition later developed from these pieces, but more often these vignettes remained in their embryonic stage. Yamaoka translates the many facets of the composer: the atonal edginess, classical influences, and dance themes. The album is one of the most accessible and pleasurable in Fujii's catalog.

The most unique Fujii album of 2018 is Weave (Libra), by Fujii's newly-formed group, Amu. The quartet includes Tamura on trumpet and percussion, drummer/percussionist Takashi Itani, and percussive dancer Mizuki Wildenhahn. The mixed media release consists of an audio disc and a DVD that features six of the seven tracks. Watching the performance on DVD allows a full appreciation of this project. The visuals add clarity to the three percussionists while memorably humanizing Fujii's always demanding and complex approach to music.

Fujii spends little time thinking about where to focus her energy next. As late as early 2018, she didn't seem to have a set plan for her year of celebration. "I usually don't decide what is next. I just feel it. For example, when I play with my orchestra, I can get some idea, feeling and imagination for my solo. So all different projects actually connect with and help each other. There are recordings of some projects I have been working on but I would also like recordings of some new projects. I am now thinking of them but nothing is fixed yet."

One quote perhaps sums up Fujii best: "My grandmother, who died a long time ago, told me that she heard beautiful music all the time after she had lost her hearing. I asked her to explain but she couldn't. She said she never heard such beautiful music. I am so curious what she heard and I would like to make music like that, the music that nobody has heard before."

Selected Discography

Satoko Fujii Orchestra Berlin: Ichigo Ichie (Libra Records, 2015)

If there is any doubt that a Satoko Fujii orchestra is an ensemble of a different color, one simply needs to look at the bleeding edge personnel that have played in her New York, Chicago, and Japan-based bands. Now her troupe in Berlin presents Ichigo Ichie, featuring the pianist's first big band dominated by European players. Like all of Fujii's compositional collections, this set was created and arranged around the strengths of the musicians. The results are as stellar and unusual as the rest of her prolific body of her work.

The talented multi-reedist Gebhard Ullmann sticks to tenor sax. Ullman has recorded with celebrated figures such as composer George Schuller, trombonist Steve Swell, bassist Joe Fonda, and drummers Barry Altschul and Gerald Cleaver. With over forty recordings, top German saxophonist Matthias Schubert is a match for Fujii's prolific output. Polish baritone saxophonist Paulina Owczarek rounds out the reed section. German trumpeters Richard Koch and Nikolaus Neuser join Natsuki Tamura and accomplished trombonist Matthias Müller to complete the brass section. Bassist Jan Roder was a pivotal player in Alexander von Schlippenbach's excellent abstraction of Thelonious Monk, Monk's Casino (Intakt, 2005). Japanese guitarist Kazuhisa Uchihashi is well known in his country's free improvisation movement. Dual drummers from Germany, Michael Griener and Peter Orins (a regular Fujii collaborator), complete the ensemble.

The album's title translates as "Once In A Lifetime." Four of its five tracks are sequential movements based on that title and were originally composed for the 2013 Chicago Jazz Festival. From the opening track, we immediately enter a realm beyond normal analysis. An extended drum duet leads to what seems like a full orchestral closing crescendo, only to be followed by Roder's minimal bass and near silence. Tamura enters with his unorthodox puffing/breathing techniques, creating gusts of wind before settling on a fractured melody. The larger group returns in a slurred accompaniment where the horns and drums dominate.

Throughout the remaining three parts, there are varying degrees of participation from the ensemble, often abruptly changing from loud full orchestration to pensive solos, for example when Tamura again takes over early on in "Ichigo Ichie 2," this time more melodically. This piece swings back and forth, landing on a wild saxophone improvisation near its conclusion. Parts 3 and 4 are frequently abstract, with near-mainstream flourishes emphasizing the offbeat path of the main ideas. Fujii keeps her piano at a distance through most of the recording but takes a very percussive solo on the closer "ABCD."

The pieces on Ichigo Ichie succeed largely due to a clear presentation of Fujii's musical objectives, despite the often busy nature of the compositions. Each piece contains multiple evolutions, each transformative in unpredictable ways, from powerful and sober to exhilarating and mischievous. She embraces simplicity as much as the extremes of complexity and shapeshifts the orchestra to represent traditional functionality or smaller group effects. The music on Ichigo Ichie can be as abrasive as it can be melodic, somersaulting through the tumult and silences at breakneck speed. Fujii is an enigma best appreciated with repeated listening and an open mind.

Gato Libre: Neko (Libra Records, 2017)

Any new release from Gato Libre is a welcome event and sure to be a transcendent musical journey of simple sophistication in an unconventional structure. Neko is all of those things plus the palpable emotion of loss endured by this group. Fujii and Tamura have been mainstays of the group since its 2005 debut, Strange Village (Muzak Inc). The original quartet included bassist Norikatsu Koreyasu and guitarist Kazuhiko Tsumura, both of whom passed away in 2011 and 2015, respectively. In each case, Tamura questioned continuing the group and thankfully did so.

Trombonist Yasuko Kaneko first appeared on Gato Libre's DuDu (Libra Records, 2014) after live performances with the group. He became a natural fit from the beginning, filling the gap left by Koreyasu. Following the loss of Tsumura, and with urging from Fujii, Tamura made the decision that Gato Libre continue functioning as a trio for Neko.

Tamura wrote each of the album's six pieces. For both the trumpeter and Fujii, the material is often an alter-ego for the couple's free improvisational group Kaze (with drummer Peter Orins and trumpeter Christian Pruvost) and their boundary-pushing piano/trumpet recordings. "Tama" is imbued with the folkloric themes that have been the trademark of much of Gato Libre's music. "Momo" sets up and retains a slow, understated melody, its melancholy occasionally lifted by Fujii's accordion (she does not play piano with Gato Libre). "Mii" and "Hime" find Tamura alternating between his most expressive playing and more abstract techniques. One of Gato Libre's most moving pieces is "Yuza," featuring extended solos from each musician before coming together for its solemn conclusion. "Tora" concludes the set with off-kilter lyricism and an underlying sense of sorrow.

The emotional trials that Tamura and Fujii have endured are on full display here, neither glossed over nor sentimentalized. The sad beauty of the album plays out in a cinematic manner, reflective but still charismatic enough to reflect the old world charm that Fujii's accordion lends to Gato Libre's music. "Neko" translates as "cat," and hopefully this group has at least nine more lives.

Invisible Hand (Cortez Sound, 2017)

Fujii's work has been well documented across her many musical outlets. A restless creative force, she has plied her trade in the intimate duo settings with Tamura and recently with bassist Joe Fonda on Duet (Long Song Records, 2016). Yet Fujii's is more often found in one of her numerous orchestras from New York, Berlin and Tokyo. Few of her dozens of recordings have showcased her solo piano work, the last one being Gen Himmel (Libra Records, 2013).

Invisible Hand is a two-CD set recorded live at Cortez jazz club in Mito, Japan. A mix of older Fujii compositions and new improvisations, the pieces are fleshed out mostly in extended treatments that leave room for Fujii's unique lyricism and edgy avant-garde inventions. The austere "Thought" opens the first disc with a predominantly delicate right-hand approach running counter to the busy and more erratic "Increase." The thirteen-minute title track has Fujii working both inside and outside the piano, the extended technique both lyrical and eerie. The long "Floating" is more straightforward and incorporates classical influences. "Hayese" goes further into free and open territory as the improvisation displays layers of impulsive construction.

The second disc begins pensively with "I Know You Don't Know," an atmosphere that follows through the first half of "Spring Storm" which rumbles and explodes in a torrent of notes. Fujii again coaxes unnatural sounds from the piano on the otherwise gentle balladry of "Inori" and once again slides around the inner works on "Green Cab," a boogie-heavy romp. "Gen Himmel" (from her last solo album) is infused with a beautiful gospel flavor to close out the album.

Fujii feels that Invisible Hand led her to a deeper personal space, buoyed by her audience and the sense of being in the right time and place for such an undertaking. The entire first disc is improvised, though her innate sense of arrangement sometimes makes the music feel more constructed. This album is perhaps as packed with emotion as any of Fujii's works outside Gato Libre. Combined with her technical skills, it is a rewarding experience.

Photo credit: Claudio Casanova



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