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Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York: Fukushima

Karl Ackermann By

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Satoko Fujii's Orchestra New York has been together since their 1997 debut South Wind (Leo Lab/Libra). A "super group" by any standards, it has remained largely intact over the course of twenty years, bringing the ensemble to its latest release, Fukushima, a memorial suite. The Fukushima nuclear accident was caused by a major earthquake and a subsequent tsunami and was the worst such incident since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Fujii was in Tokyo at the time, in 2011. There were no immediate deaths from the accident, but there are estimates of future cancer-related fatalities that number in the hundreds. That uncertain future is part of the anxiety that Japan lives with on an ongoing basis.

The fourteen-member orchestra includes such notable artists as saxophonists Oscar Noriega, Ellery Eskelin and Tony Malaby, trumpeters Dave Ballou, Herb Robertson and Natsuki Tamura (Fujii's husband and frequent musical partner), as well as Nels Cline and Ches Smith. Fujii serves as the composer/conductor, leaving aside the piano for this recording.

There are five untitled tracks on Fukushima; bookending three extended pieces are two shorter ones that are correspondingly abstinent and tranquil. Breaking through the heterogeneous sound waves of "Track 1," Cline's guitar and Andy Laster's baritone saxophone provide their own chemical reaction. Only when "Track 2" begins to swell—approximately half-way through its sixteen minutes—do we grasp the full power of the orchestra. "Track 3" is dark and frantic and appropriate to the sense of unknowing that must have gripped those present in the disaster. Robertson and Smith share standout performances here. "Track 4" begins in cautious near-silence—an evaluation of the circumstances, followed by shock. The tenor saxophone and trumpet figuratively dig their way out of the chaos and the sounds of nature barely emerge. The final three minutes of the seventeen minute track are the most structured, as if rebuilding before Noriega's beautiful closing track epilogue.

Fujii is not unfamiliar with expressing her personal emotions through her music. She has done so through the loss of bassist Norikatsu Koreyasu and guitarist Kazuhiko Tsumura, both from Gato Libre. A different—less predictable—sense of loss pervades much of Fukushima. Among the characteristics that make Fujii unique as a composer, is her process of building minimal structures within conventional forms, and then turning them loose to free and extended techniques. Each of Fujii's orchestras produce consistently exceptional projects but Fukushima is the best to date. Highly recommended.

Note: the CD will be offered in an alternate version that includes Fujii's vocals on "Track 2." The CD features a cover photo by Ann Braithwaite.

Track Listing: Track 1; Track 2; Track 3; Track 4; Track 5.

Personnel: Oscar Noriega: alto saxophone; Ellery Eskelin: tenor saxophone; Tony Malaby: tenor saxophone; Andy Laster: baritone saxophone; Dave Ballou: trumpet; Herb Robertson: trumpet; Natsuki Tamura : trumpet; Joey Sellers: trombone; Joe Fiedler: trombone; Curtis Hasselbring: trombone; Nels Cline: guitar; Stomu Takeishi: bass; Ches Smith: drums.

Title: Fukushima | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: Libra Records

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