Satoko Fujii: Blueprint, Before The Dawn, Sketches, Live In Japan 2004, Fragment


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The prolific pianist, composer and bandleader Satoko Fujii performs and records with a variety of musical configurations. Discs by her two, well established, small groups—the Satoko Fujii Trio and Satoko Fujii Quartet—are reviewed in Part One of this article.

Fujii also leads two jazz orchestras, both of which include Natsuki Tamura playing trumpet and contributing compositions. The Satoko Fujii Orchestra, consisting largely of musicians of non-Japanese origin, performs Blueprint, rich in big band-style arranging as well as solos. The Satoko Fujii Orchestra East, consisting entirely of Japanese musicians, performs Before The Dawn, which has a more transparent sound and is more soloistic.

Also reviewed is Sketches, on which Fujii plays her sometimes classically influenced, often descriptive and always pianistic solo compositions. Live In Japan 2004 was recorded by the Satoko Fujii Four, which augments the Trio with Tamura.

Last reviewed is Fragment, a potpourri of miniatures by the trio Junk Box, consisting of Fujii, Tamura, and percussionist John Hollenbeck.

Satoko Fujii Orchestra

On Blueprint, the Orchestra performs five compositions by Fujii and one by Tamura. Fujii's explosive "Blueprint includes free improvisations by numerous soloists, some of it simultaneous. At times the instrumentation and voicings recall the work of Gil Evans, as do the groove shifts from up-tempo swing to rock. The orchestra plays the incisive melody, first with unison brass on a rhythmic pattern. The reeds enter with parallel chords, and the brass join with dissonant chords. An alto saxophonist plays a squealing solo that rises by whole steps, while a trumpeter twitters and bassist Stomu Takeishi takes a furious solo.

Opening Tamura's briskly humorous "Ocha! ("Tea! ), Fujii plays a repeated, staccato phrase that ends with a falling half-step, with overlaid free improvisation on trumpet, piano and percussion. Tamura solos, going into triple time, while the band's accompaniment grows louder with more dissonant chords. For the finale, the orchestra alternately plays the thematic phrase and shouts "Ocha!

With "Anemometer Fujii summons breezes and gusts. Her orchestration hints at Charles Mingus, and as with "Blueprint, the chord progressions and voicings suggest a Gil Evans inspiration. Reeds play the melody over an ascending brass figure. Fujii leads the way to a faster, tenser groove, and a tenor saxophonist takes a solo accompanied by Fujii's stabbing chords and clusters on the piano.

On "Nagoyanian, Takeishi and drummer Aaron Alexander introduce a swinging groove in 9/8 meter (Fujii apparently doesn't play on this piece). The orchestra plays the irregularly-phrased chromatic melody, harmonized in parallel seventh chords. In a solo section, Takeishi plays in a sliding fashion, and he fades out while baritone saxophonist Andy Laster solos. Later, the orchestra plays a Mingus-like interlude in triple time with an alto saxophone soloing freely over them.

The nebulous "Kioku starts with individual instruments, mainly reeds, playing short phrases and long tones, many wavery or otherwise distorted. As the orchestra sustains chords, the volume and density grow gradually. Toward the end, a squealing trumpet erupts.

The elegiac "Untitled opens with two trombones playing a slow, even-note, minor, hymnlike tune in harmony. More brass and reeds join the repeating refrain, a four-measure harmonic-minor figure that serves as a Baroque style repeating bass, and the rest play a high pedal point. A trumpet solos soulfully, while the orchestra plays the chordal theme with a brass descant. In a faster, Latin groove the orchestra plays a remarkably different version of the melody, with parallel chords and chromatic sliding around. It ends with the melody in an emotive reprise.

Satoko Fujii Orchestra East
Before The Dawn

On Before The Dawn, the Orchestra East performs compositions by both Fujii and Tamura. Fujii's "Pakonya opens with a long, free-for-all introduction, and then a loose, swinging melody over a short, bluesy, 12/8 meter, Afro-Latin flavored Phrygian-pentatonic riff. After Fujii's active solo, a trumpeter plays a long, boppish solo, and baritone saxophonist Ryuichi Yoshida improvises simultaneously in a freer, squawky style. An alto saxophone duo plays a triplet-rhythm, harmonized background that contrasts stylistically with the solo.

Fujii's "Joh-Ha-Cue is built on a short Phrygian tune and made up of several segments. The introduction is a shifting orchestral chord over the bass plucking the tonic, mostly low and soft but with occasional louder, higher outbursts. A trumpet and tenor saxophone play an ornamented, melismatic duo on a harmonic-minor scale with orchestral background harmonized in thirds.

Subsequent segments include solos by bassist Toshiki Nagata, drummer Masahiro Uemura and an alto saxophonist with an Ornette Coleman-influenced style. Halfway through, a couple of flutes play fleeting birdlike phrases over a freely-played, percussion-dominated background. Later, a trumpeter takes a solo that sounds like Stravinsky over funky bass and drums in 5/4 meter, with menacing horn chords that fall off in pitch for a bitonal effect. Tension and volume grow, and a trombone solo is briefly accompanied by a softly clanging bell.

Tamura's "Wakerasuka is dramatic, with menacing, wailing horns, and Fujii's stabbing clusters. Theatrical sounding shouts and chants and chatter are punctuated by a pounded, folkish drum. A speech-like trombone solos over swinging, marchlike drums and dissonant piano chords.

Fujii's "Before The Dawn progresses from quiet to forceful while alternating between moods, via numerous solos and returns to the head melody. The brass and reeds play a quiet melody harmonized with suspension-laden voicings. A trombone and a trumpet play a duet largely in irregular jabs. Uemura takes a lively solo, during which the orchestra returns to the chordal melody with baritone saxophone prominent and then a tenor saxophone takes a chromatically-ranging solo. Around halfway through, a soprano saxophone plays a free-form unaccompanied solo, soon joined by Nagata playing expressively in arco.

Tamura's "Yattoko Mittoko opens with reeds, dominated by tenor and baritone saxophones, playing improvised-sounding sustained notes, alternating with an Asian flute. A fast-tempo section with a funk beat has a short repeating figure with shifting accents, and a couple of trumpets loosely soloing. In another interesting solo, Uemura trades fours with a pentatonic orchestral melody.

Satoko Fujii

In performing her compositions on Sketches, Fujii leans to the contemplative, descriptive, and Impressionistic. On "Seventh Moon, Fujii builds a single-phrase melody on a pentatonic scale but harmonizes with whole-tone based chords.

"Frozen Fire opens with a low-pitched, free-form melody over an indeterminate meter. Fujii moves into chromatic, montuno-influenced patterns, in alternation with raucous clusters, her right hand gradually ascending. Eventually, she plays both sides of this dialog simultaneously.

In the gentle, polymetric "Watershed, Fujii plays a chromatic and pentatonic, triple-meter melody over a whole-tone scale, while her left hand plays sixth-oriented broken chords, seemingly in another key. In "Tree Rings, repeating patterns in octaves grow in volume, speed and pitch. Central is the falling half-step motif, sometimes expanding to a Phrygian melodic line. The feline theme of Bell The Cat! returns in "Tin Can Cat, which consists entirely of non-keyboard-produced sounds that include delicate plucking, woody scrapes and rattles, soft meowing twangs.

"Clay Pot starts with appealing chords in traditional harmonies with a shifting tonal center, like Debussy with more pronounced bitonality. Fujii then shifts into an Anglo-American folk-music genre, with a hint of blues. High, off-tonality triads initially punctuate the melody and eventually form a Gershwinesque bluesy theme.

Fujii starts "Your Deepening Shadow in a capricious, gestural and atonal style. Then, she moves to a different musical world: a chromatic, minor melody in the low-register, reminiscent of a nineteenth-century Romantic ballade. She alternates between the two worlds. "Dazzling Sunlight is hard-edged and high-contrast, with sudden and bold rhythmic and chordal changes. Fujii's thematic focus is a series of shimmering chordal tremolos, interspersed with free-form melodic fragments.

In "Looking Back, Fujii starts with a simple melody over broken chords, like a pop tune with complex chord changes. The melody conveys longing, grasping, and is touched with regret and even anger. In a surprisingly strong ending, she plays a wordless song in the manner of nineteenth-century Romantic composer Robert Schumann.

"Looking Everywhere opens with a single-line, long melody with regular rhythm but no definite tonal center. Fujii introduces another line, creating polyphony. Using single-note and two-note lines, she evokes the feel of walking, with occasional "skips in triple meter and frenetic double-time. In the introduction to "Look Up, Fujii strums the piano strings and makes a ratchet noise, and also plays chords and a descending figure. The ornamented, major-scale melody is lightly swinging, its meter alternating between duple and triple.

Satoko Fujii Four
Live In Japan 2004

Live In Japan 2004 captures the Satoko Fujii Four playing in a relaxed and expansive manner. The extended introduction to "Ninepin starts with a light vamp by Fujii, bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Jim Black, joined by Tamura with a wah-wah mute playing a descending three-note motif. Fujii plays a chromatic, sixteenth-note solo on the motif and is joined by Tamura while Dresser and Black play in tremolo. At last, Fujii plays the Balkan-folk style melody over broken octaves, joined by Tamura. Fujii's solo with drum accompaniment grows frenetic and wide-ranging, followed by her lush, chordally harmonized version of the melody.

Dynamically and acoustically, this performance of "Illusion Suite differs from the studio-recorded version on Illusion Suite. On Illusion Suite, the instrumental sounds are close-up, discrete, and clipped. Here, the sound is ambient, blended, and three-dimensional (that is, seeming to fill a space). Here Black, especially on his central solo, seems to play more quietly with more subtle dynamics. Dresser's bass sounds richer (or darker) in the typical (low) range on Illusion Suite, while here its higher notes and harmonics are more ethereal, and some of the harmonics sound like cymbal-rubbing.

In "Looking Out Of The Window, Tamura plays the melody in front of a busy piano and bass in shifting meters, resulting in an often dissonant, syncopated undercurrent. Fujii plucks the piano strings while Dresser lightly bows a ghostly high-pitched squeal and strums the bass strings. Tamura enters with a descending motif in sustained, even tones, lengthening the phrase each time through. Fujii plays broken chords and chromatic patterns, contributing to the glimmering sound, as Dresser uses harmonics in improvising on the theme and Black plays with light skittery brushes. The volume grows, and Tamura's tone evolves from firm to strident as Fujii and Black play a shifting syncopated groove.

In place of the witchy cackling on Illusion Suite, this version of "An Insane Scheme starts with animal-like mooing and jaw harp-like plucking. The work's episodes are built on the same themes as on the earlier recording: a 3/4-time melody, a chromatic figure on piano, and a dreamy 4/4 tune, with free-form noises in between.

Junk Box

Fragment interprets everyday images and experiences with keen awareness and humor. On "A Dream In The Dawn, Fujii and Tamura play a few high notes while Hollenbeck rubs cymbals. Tamura improvises with lip-smacking sounds, and Fujii plays a repeating figure that gradually becomes more complex.

"Ants Are Crossing The Highway evokes a frantic dash across a vast highway where harried drivers rant. Fujii produces woody, scurrying noises and plays a 7/4 montuno. Hollenbeck plays chimes, xylophone, and cymbals, and Tamura mimics car horns and two-pitch sirens. "Getting Lost On Snowy Day is pervaded by the buzz and chuff of Hollenbeck's percussion, conjuring wind-blown sleety snow and the occasional squeak of footsteps on it. Tamura repeats a five-note call, like an animal's frustrated bellowing. Fujii's single-line solo sounds muffled and off-key.

On "At Intersection, On A Rainy Day, Tamura squeals, and Fujii strums piano strings to evoke rainfall. Tamura's trumpet becomes wilder and bellows like a car horn, and Hollenbeck creates the sound of thunder. "Looking Out Of The Window is spare, slow and melodic. This rendition is more rhythmically straightforward than the version on Live In Japan 2004. Fujii's solo includes a rumbling tremolo focused on the half-step, while Tamura solos on sustained tones.

Does "Your Neighbors refer to the noisy, slightly crazy folks next door or to the musicians themselves? Fujii plays brief episodes with varying tunes and rhythms. Tamura plays with speechlike inflections in an exaggeratedly dramatic style. Hollenbeck keeps "Wok Cooking warm with brushed drums and sizzling cymbals. Tamura throws in a constellation of staccato single notes, recalling Miles Davis' classic reading of "Seven Steps To Heaven . Tamura's and Fujii's improvisations on various phrases gradually become more complex.

While its title plays on "Tin Can Cat from Sketches, "Tin Can Godzilla is a surprisingly serious piece. Fujii plays low-pitched, ominous figures that shift in meter, over Hollenbeck's rumbling drums. Fujii plays the broken-triad melody in two-note harmony, shifting between major and minor. In "Cat's Nap, Fujii rolls a sustained, dissonant chord while Hollenbeck suggests animals skittering, squeaking, chirruping and croaking. Tamura's trumpet mimics a drowsing cat's muffled vocalizations while it dreams of stalking or playing with those creatures.

"Lullaby evokes the near-dream state of a child who's drifting off to sleep. Fujii plays chromatic tremolo-filled figures, undamped, behind the echoey whirring and distorted speech sounds of electronic toys. Her playing becomes more intense and syncopated, and the toy noise ends, returns momentarily, and again fades out. It concludes with a single stroke of a gong.

Tracks and Personnel


Tracks: Blueprint; Ocha!; Anemometer; Nagoyanian; Kioku; Untitled.

Personnel: Satoko Fujii: piano; Oscar Noriega, Briggan Krauss: alto saxophone; Ellery Eskelin, Tony Malaby: tenor saxophone; Andy Laster: baritone saxophone; Natsuki Tamura, Herb Robertson, Steven Bernstein, Dave Ballou, Laurie Frink: trumpet; Curtis Hasselbring, Joey Sellers, Joe Fiedler: trombone; Stomu Takeishi: bass; Aaron Alexander: drums.

Before The Dawn

Tracks: Pakonya; Joh-Ha-Cue; Wakerasuka; Before The Dawn; Yattoko Mittoko.

Personnel: Satoko Fujii: piano; Sachi Hayasaka, Kunihiro Isumi: alto saxophone; Hiroaki Katayama, Kenichi Matsumoto: tenor saxophone; Ryuichi Yoshida: baritone saxophone; Natsuki Tamura, Yoshihito Fukumoto, Takao Watanabe, Tsuneo Takeda: trumpet; Hiroshi Fukumura, Haguregumo Nagamatsu, Tetsuya Higashi: trombone; Toshiki Nagata: bass; Masahiro Uemura: drums.


Tracks: Seventh Moon; Frozen Fire; Watershed; Tree Rings; Tin Can Cat; Clay Pot; Your Deepening Shadow; Dazzling Sunlight; Looking Back; Looking Everywhere; Look Up.

Personnel: Satoko Fujii: piano.

Live In Japan 2004

Tracks: Ninepin; Illusion Suite; Looking Out Of The Window; An Insane Scheme.

Personnel: Satoko Fujii: piano; Natsuki Tamura: trumpet; Mark Dresser: bass; Jim Black: drums.


Tracks: A Dream In The Dawn; Ants Are Crossing The Highway; Getting Lost On Snowy Day; At Intersection, On A Rainy Day; Looking Out Of The Window; Your Neighbors; Wok Cooking; Tin Can Godzilla; Cat's Nap; Lullaby.

Personnel: Satoko Fujii: piano; Natsuki Tamura: trumpet; John Hollenbeck: percussion.

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