Trumpeter Natsuki Tamura
and pianist Satoko Fujii
have made so many records together that it seems impossible to keep track of them all. Partners in life and in music, they have collaborated on everything from duo recordings to Fujii's large-scale orchestras. In 2020 alone, their Kaze quartet released Sandstorm
(Circum-Disc) featuring electronics specialist Ikue Mori
, and Mori teamed again with Fujii and Tamura on Prickly Pear Cactus
(Libra). They also added another duo release, Pentas: A Tribute to Eric and Chris Stern
(Not Two Records), their seventh to date. But their standout project for 2020 may very well be their trio with drummer Ramon Lopez
, on Mantle
, a captivating record with rich interaction and masterful compositions.
Fujii has worked with Lopez before, releasing a duo recording in 2019, Confluence
(Libra). But they added Tamura for a nine-concert tour of Japan later that year, and they clearly realized there was something extraordinary about their chemistry, leading them to hit the studio to record Mantle
before their creative alchemy was lost. And it truly is an egalitarian effort, with each musician contributing three compositions to the album, together creating an absorbing, cohesive set of music that channels the distinctive abilities of each musician expertly.
One of the most noteworthy traits of the album is its wide range of emotional registers. Fujii is capable of stentorian powerjust listen to her thundering chords on the opener, "Nine Steps to the Ground"but her remarkable sensitivity is also apparent, with thoughtful filigrees and lyrical motifs that leaven the force she brings to her instrument. Tamura also covers the gamut of expressivity, with delicate musings at the start of "Metaphors" in a pensive dialogue with Fujii, before the trumpeter delves into more abstraction, harnessing extended technique to charge his playing with increasing urgency, as Fujii feeds off his energy and Lopez soon enters to guide the music to a crescendo of power. Lopez' own expansiveness is noteworthy, at some moments limited to the most muted support, and at others reveling in the group's collective fervor.
Even more impressive is the craft displayed in the group's compositions. There is abundant room for collective improvisation here, yet the sturdy scaffolding of the pieces ensures that the music never loses its bearings. Some of the tracks, like "Your Shadow," possess a heartbreaking fragility, as Tamura and Fujii engage in a shared reverie; others, like "Encounter," traverse a larger swath of territory, from austere tranquility to surging intensity. But there is always a through line toward a hidden beauty, as on the closer, "The Temple Bell." After gradually building a furious wall of sound, fueled by Fujii's cascading torrents, Lopez' frenetic flurries and Tamura's upper-register screams, the music suddenly crashes to a halt; and the group resumes with a playful, prancing coda, just a few bars to remind us that even in its most extreme moments, this trio can still find that elusive balance between raw energy and graceful restraint.
Nine Steps to the Ground; Metaphors; From Spring to Summer; Your Shadow; Encounter; Straw Coat; Came, Left;
Autumn Sky; The Temple Bell.