Satoko Fujii is a rare breed. The pianist and composer manages to continually defy expectations while remaining solid and eminently musical in her work. She puts out new recordings at an almost ridiculous rate, rarely repeating a composition, but doesn't simply toss any live session to whatever label will take it. Each new disc (she's released more than thirty under her name since her first release in 1995, including eight in 2006 and eleven in 2004) seems to advance her ideas as a composer and bandleader.
Fujii leads no less than four standing big bands (three in Japan and one in New York), a trio with drummer Jim Black and Mark Dresser (sometimes augmented by her husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura) and an endless variety of other small groupings, duos and trios often aimed more toward improvisation.
"I like doing many different things, but for me it's the samecomposition and improvisation are basically the same, she said. "The thing I like to do is new projects. It doesn't mean I have to go that direction.
"I do have a bunch of recordings, but still there are tapes waiting to be put out. I just like working, she added. "And if I work, I get a new recording and then I have to find a way to put it out.
On a visit to New York, in March of 2006, she and Tamura played a beautifully slow suite at Tonic, growing at times faster or louder but somehow managing to avoid being both fast and loud at once for the first forty of the fifty-minute set. The suite was comprised of pieces composed by each of them and for a variety of groups, rolled together into a coherent whole.
Of Fujii's many musical relationships, her most fascinating oneperhaps nsurprisinglyis also her most personal one. In their duo set, she and Tamura effortlessly slid through each other's compositions. Tamura is a member of most of her bands and provides some nicely unusual compositions for her big bands. Likewise she is regularly a member of his groupswhich can range from Spanish folk-tinged compositions (his group Gato Libre features her on accordion) to electric fusion (where she can be heard on synthesizer). When Tamura is leading the band, Fujii gets thrown some curveballs.
"I need a different taste in a band, so I have an electric band, Tamura said. "If she played the piano, I can imagine it. I need to be surprised. I have a synth, but I only know how to turn it on and that's all. I said 'OK, try this one. I need a cheap sound.'
The challenge of new instruments, Fujii said, forces her into her "musical self and away from what she learned in music school. (Initially studying classical piano, Fujii went on to study jazz improvisation at the Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music, studying under Paul Bley at the latter.)
"I'm having fun doing that, Fujii said. "Otherwise I would not play them. I play piano, I know what I do, but with accordion or synthesizer I find a different part of me. And since I have no technique with accordion, I have to do core things; I have to apply my core parts.
The couple met around 1985, when Fujii was playing in a cabaret band in Japan and Tamura, then a known mainstream jazz player, was an invited guest with the group.
"He was already successful with session work, Fujii recalled. "I was the only girl in the band. Everyone in the band came to me and said 'be careful of him'. In two minutes he came to me and said, 'You want to do something? You want to go to the beach?'
Before long they were making music together and, as Tamura said, had "quit money.
While they were in New York in 2006, they recorded a new project of Fujii's, the Min-Yoh Ensemble, which played at the Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville in Quebec that same year. The recordingFujin Raijin
, with Tamura, Curtis Hasselbring and Andrea Parkinswas issued in 2007 on the festival's Victo label. It's an unusual session, even in Fujii's extensive catalogue. At times sweet and nostalgic, at times lonesome or even dark, the six tracks are built from the name of a traditional form of Japanese folk music (from which the group also gets its name). It includes arrangements of two traditional songs, one sung by Fujii as well.
"Japanese traditional music is very simple, not like Arabic or Klezmer that have special scales, she said at a press conference in Victoriaville in 2006. "If I do something very easy, it will be like some very cheap Asian movie and I did not want to do that.
The first decision she made about the band, she said, was to work without a drummer. From there she built the group to the unusual lineup of piano, trumpet, trombone and accordion. The project was, she added, something like an immersion into her own culture.
"I had been studying Western music for a long time, but I had never studied Japanese music, she said. "That's so strange. In Japan we studied very, very little Japanese music in school because all of the government people think [studying Western music] is important. I thought, 'that's so sad'. Fifteen years ago I started studying Japanese folk singers. It's a very different feeling playing Western music and playing Japanese music. It's so exciting.
Back in New York in July 2007, Fujii will be playing a duo with violinist Carla Kihlstedt who, like Fujii, seems to have a different band for every month of the year. Kihlstedt is best known for her work with the art metal band Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and the chamber Americana group Tin Hat, but she also leads her own odd pop trio, Two Foot Yard, plays with another hard rock band Book of Knots and has many of her own improv meetings. She and Fujii first played together in 2002, when the ROVA saxophone quartet put them together as a part of its 25th anniversary festivities.
"It was amazing and immediate, Kihlstedt said of that first show together. "It was one of those moments when music takes you where drugs never could. She's fantastic. She's a total powerhouse, but she also has unimaginable subtlety and an enormous technical and emotional vocabulary.
Fujii may be convening her New York Big Band this fall and has West Coast shows scheduled in September with Tamura, Larry Ochs and a piano duo with Myra Melford. The rest of the year will see new CDs including a duo with Kihlstedt, a double duo with Misha Mengleberg, a second Junk Box record (the couple's trio with John Hollenbeck) and new recordings by her trio and quartet. What the year won't see much of is Fujii sitting still.
"I have a busy year, Fujii said. "If we are home too much, we get bored.
Satoko Fujii Min-Yoh Ensemble, Fuijin Raijin (Victo, 2007)
Junk Box, Fragment (Libra, 2006)
Satoko Fujii Quartet, Zephyros (Natsat, 2003)
Satoko Fujii Orchestra East/West, Double Take (Ewe, 1999
Satoko Fujii, Kitsune-Bi (Tzadik, 1998)
Natsuki Tamura/Satoko Fujii, How Many? (Leo-Libra, 1996)
Satoko Fujii/Paul Bley, Something About Water (Libra-Bomba, 1995)
Courtesy of Satoko Fujii