Every Satoko Fujii appearance, live or on disc, challenges her skills in a new context. Fujii can knuckle-bust like the best piano roustabout, but her influences include Paul Bley's watery side, and her early solo discs are pastel, but this is no femme player. Her first duet disc with Tamura on Leo combined ferocity and suavity together. They've worked separately with small ensembles, as well as their Japanese and American large orchestras.
One of Fujii's strengths is her sense of ease; she can write and perform in many styles. All composing credit is shared on Clouds, their second disc as a duo. Despite the disc's title, the bright, playful folk art style cover allays any fear of new age impressionism. Tamura too contains multitudes. He can use mouthpiece spittle and duck calls, yet in the same piece, switch to an improvised Dixieland riff; none of it for show, all integral to the particular piece he's playing.
Clouds is a far out but easily approachable disc. Its compositions, each named for a type of cloud, work both as a suite and can stand alone. It opens with a dinosaur cry created by a singing mouthpiece. Fujii soon joins the trumpet from the inside of the piano, sounding first like a toy piano, then a harp. Fingers inside and out, Fujii adds the high notes of a standard piano. The famed eighty-eight seem miniscule now; there are more keys to this instrument than that. In the dynamic "Cumulonimbus", Fujii hits romantic cascades, but not softly. The attack is crisp, precise; only the pedal creates lushness. Later in the same piece the whole body of the piano is used as a percussive device, yet it is also caressed. Scrapes on the strings create a vibrant effect, bringing to mind the piano works of Henry Cowell. Fujii once said she was perhaps more influenced by classical music than jazz, citing Ives in particular. Soon after the piano plays with itself, a trumpet call cascades as a quiet but dense harp-like piano adds contrast within the first half of the sixteen-minute piece.
"Stratus" opens with Tamura playing a beautiful, skewed line, alternating between a pure, open tone, and that of a mosquito with a stomach ache. Fujii ‘s playing is romantic and abstract.
Before "Stratocumulus", the ten-minute coda which sums up the striations possible as two partners reach for the skies, a Duke-ish melody opens "Cirrocumulus" with Tamura using a wah-wah effect. This cloud surely has a mood: indigo, but this indigo isn't a copy, for the piano's rich, slow chording and right-hand tremolo brings to mind another curious thought: This could be Duke Ellington playing with Albert Ayler on an early release of ECM, which, lest you forget, stands for Editions of Contemporary Music.
This review first appeared in the June 2002 issue of All About Jazz: New York .