Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii has been one of the most exciting arrangers, as well as a compelling composer and performer, in outside jazz in recent years. Unusually with the company she keeps, improvisation beyond soloing has never been a part of her work. But a recent record shows a new leaning toward improv, to varying results. Live in Japan
adds to her longstanding trio of bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Jim Black her husband and increasingly frequent collaborator Natsuki Tamura. The trio had evolved in recent years from a head-oriented post boppy project to be more stretched out. As a quartet they find even more room to move, with Tamura (an excellent trumpeter who works in blasts and smeared breaths) filling out the band without taking on a front-line melodic role.
The growth of the group (in its size and lexicon) is apparent especially because the four pieces in the setrecorded live at Egg Farm in Japan in July of 2004have all been recorded previously by Fujii (a rarity for the prolific leader). The oldest, "Looking Out the Window, comes from the trio's 1998 release of the same name. Here, however, the theme is subsumed by the playing of the piece.
The most inventive tune of the four is the scattershot "An Insane Scheme (originally from the trio's sixth record, 2004's Illusion Suite) interrupts itself almost manically, with excellent off-kilter playing by Black. At under seven minutes it's the shortest piece on the disc, but it became the centerpiece of a long suite of old and new compositions at Tonic last month. As an undivided whole, the set gave room for segments of deep improv along with familiar themes and some romantic melodicism á la Fujii's former teacher Paul Bley.
The record and the Tonic set showed Fujii to be less delineable than in past years. She has messed things up for the better of late by expanding her role as a bandleader, finding more unusual settings (for example her work with Ruins drummer Tatsuya Yoshihida and her synthesizer work in Tamura-led groups). The various motifs she's farmed over the years are now beginning to happily coexist.