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Satoko Fujii: Invisible Hand

Budd Kopman By

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Pianist and composer Satoko Fujii, otherwise known by the cognoscenti as "the Ellington of free jazz" and "musical citizen of the world," has produced an enormous body of work as a leader, co-leader or sideman that now numbers around 80 CDs in many configurations ranging from solo to big band. After spending even a short time listening to her oeuvre, her style, as varied as it is over the different formats and through the years, becomes immediately recognizable as "Fujii."

The double CD Invisible Hand is a solo performance that will be welcome by anyone who follows Fujii as it is an intimate (self-)portrait of this high-energy, intense and yet playful artist, but also as a musical summary by Fujii as she saw herself in the moment.

The story of the events which lead up to this recording is almost as important as the music itself. Fujii had performed at the Knuttel House in Tokyo with her quartet Tobira (see the astounding Yamiyo Ni Karasu) and a fan, Mr. Yaguchi, came up to her and asked if she would perform at the Cortez Jazz Club, owned by Teruhiko Ito, in Mito (about 120 miles northeast of Tokyo), which is not known for its jazz scene. After a delay caused by Cortez not having a grand piano (Fujii plays inside the instrument a lot), Fujii's group Kaze (see Uminari) played at the club in January, 2016, her first visit ever to Mito. Given Kaze's kind of music, and the intimacy of the room (to say the least), Fujii was a bit surprised by the enthusiastic reception to her music, and also by Ito's offer to perform solo in April.

Surprisingly, Fujii has only recorded solo three times previously: Gen Himmel in 2013, Sketches in 2004 and Indication (Libra, 1997), and Invisible Hand is her first live solo recording, making this somewhat of an "event."

The recording of the excellent piano has been done very closely, one can hear the pedalling, the hammers hitting the strings as well as the keys bottoming. The room is small, and this must have been what the audience heard, so you are really there. Fujii herself notes that the intimacy of playing solo requires a different attitude than with a group, and the support of the audience is much more important. Audience sounds have been removed; indeed, there is a "hold your breath" feeling throughout as the audience can almost be heard holding theirs. Mr. Ito, an audiophile, was so pleased with the performance that he started his own label, Cortez Sound.

The two CDs represent two sets, each with its own perspective. The first set is completely improvised, with the planning, if any, limited to choosing something like mood or tempo immediately before beginning. Of the five pieces in the second set, four were previously composed by Fujii, although she brought no charts or even a plan on which compositions to play, but rather, relying on the spirit of the moment.

The feeling overall is, remarkably, almost that of a classical concert in that for the most part, there is some kind of grounding harmony or tonal center, and the logic of the melodic lines is very strong; this is true even in the first set, and even more so in the second.

Since Fujii chose to give the album the name of the third improvisation of the first set, most likely she was quite happy with this particular effort. Indeed, "Invisible Hand" is a virtuouso display of effects produced by playing inside the piano. It is atmospheric and ethereal but with a touch of the ominous. Mixing the sustained notes of the e-bow, string strumming with a stick, plucked notes, taps on the piano's frame, muted notes as well as played notes for its thirteen minutes, the pieces arises from the mists on the ground, swirls and floats, until a widely spaced line is forcefully played over the sounds only to end abruptly. Truly marvelous.

The second set pieces played are "I Know You Don't Know," which appears on the duo recording with violinist Mark Feldman, April Shower, as well as on the solo recording Gen Himmel, "Spring Storm," which appears on Spring Storm with bassist Todd Nicholson and drummer Takashi Itani, "Inori" which appears on Zakopane with Fujii's Orchestra Tokyo and finally "Gen Himmel" from the album of the same name.

Those who are familiar with these compositions from Fujii's past (2001, 2009 and 2013) will recognize these versions for solo piano. The original "Inori" from Zakopane is a spine tingling, almost twelve minute journey, so how Fujii transforms this powerful piece from big band to solo piano is particularly interesting. Opening with scraped strings, plucked notes and the e-bow, Fujii moves to a quiet exposition of the beautiful theme, allowing the notes to reverberate. Sounding very much like extreme Classical Romanticism, emotions pour out of the piano, slowly thinning out and fading, "Inori" opens a channel directly from Fujii's heart to ours.

The set ends with "Gen Himmel," a hymn-like paean in honor of friends who had died in the preceding years. Direct, clear, highly emotional but without being maudlin, the music is uplifting and cleansing.

Much thanks should be given to Mr. Yaguchi and Mr. Ito for setting in motion the forces that brought this magnificent performance into being.

Track Listing: Disc 1: Thought; Increase; Invisible Hand; Floating; Hayase; Disc 2: I Know You Don't Know; Spring Storm; Inori; Green Cab; Gen Himmel.

Personnel: Satoko Fujii: piano.

Title: Invisible Hand | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: Cortez Sound

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