Satoko Fujii: Four And More

Jason Crane By

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I've been told many times that people don't understand my music because it's too difficult, but I don't know what they mean by 'difficult' or 'easy.' For me, sometimes straight-ahead jazz sounds too difficult.
Satoko FujiiFor pianist Satoko Fujii, 50 is the new 20.

That refers to her age, although you could almost believe it refers to the number of albums she's released in 2008 alone. Fujii appears on four records this year: a trio session called Trace A River (Libra, 2008); a quartet session with her band ma-do called Heat Wave (Not Two, 2008); a session with a completely different trio called Cloudy Then Sunny (Libra, 2008); and an album with the band Gato Libre (led by her husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura) called Kuro (Libra, 2008).

Four albums in a year may seem like a lot, but it's just another year in the studio to Fujii, who is one of Japan's most celebrated and prolific pianists and composers. After spending many of her formative musical years in the United States, Fujii now lives in Tokyo, where she continues to find new ways of bringing her favorite musicians together to play creative improvised music.

All About Jazz: How do you keep track of all the musical projects you have going on at any one time?

Satoko Fujii: It's hard to explain, because I just do the things that I want to do. I'm not making plans one by one and doing things in a very organized way. I just pick something I'd like to do and continue.

AAJ: How did you first get together with your "New York trio" with bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Jim Black? I know this band has been together for about 10 years. How did you first hook up with them?

SF: I used to live in New York City. After I graduated from the New England Conservatory in Boston, I moved to New York City in 1996. My husband, Natsuki, and I tried to go many jazz clubs to listen to music. I heard many interesting things in the city, and I especially liked Mark Dresser and Jim Black. They didn't play in the same band, but I had a feeling that I could get together with them to make a band.

AAJ: They sound incredible together and with you. How much of the music on Trace A River happened spontaneously in the studio, and how much did you plan in advance?

SF: I write many pieces, and I brought pieces to the session. But I don't like to be a dictator. I really wanted Mark to play his way and Jim to play his way. I bring material and they make music from out of it. I would say 20 percent is written and 80 percent is developed from out of it.

AAJ: I think that makes this record even more impressive because there are moments where the three of you are in such harmony. It must be a thrill to play in that setting.

SF: We've been playing together for more than 10 years. Some people think that if we keep playing together for too long, we'll lose the fresh feeling. But that is not true. The more and more we play together, we actually feel much more excited to play together.

AAJ: On your other project, Heat Wave, my understanding is that the composition style was very non-traditional.

Satoko FujiiSF: I don't use any rules. I don't want to limit myself. So I don't apply any musical theory or chord progressions or traditional ways of writing music. I just pick the notes I like. I feel like they're there and I just found them. Sometimes I write some scales or some feeling or mood. I want to make the players develop spontaneous ideas from out of that.

AAJ: You must have to work with people you really know and trust in order for that to be successful. In addition to your husband, of course.

SF: Exactly. I'm the happiest musician in the world, because all my players that I play with are so great. I don't need to do anything, because they already make music beautifully. I just ask them to play with me. That's all I do.

AAJ: When I listen to an album like Heat Wave, I always wonder what the composer thought the album would sound like when he or she walked into the studio. Does Heat Wave sound like what you thought it was going to sound like?

SF: I know many great composers who can listen to the sound [in their heads] when they write the music. But in my case, I sometimes cannot think about that. I'm lucky, because even if I can't think of something, I can get more things from playing with someone else. So when I entered the studio with my music, I imagined a little. But I always end up having much more than I expected.

AAJ: Natsuki Tamura gets amazing non-pitched sounds out of his trumpet. All kinds of squeals and vocal sounds. It's fascinating. Is it surprising to you sometimes to hear what comes out of the bell of his horn?

SF: I really like that kind of sound. I love noises. My parents listen to very traditional music, and they are not crazy about my stuff. My mother once said to Natsuki, "How come you play like choking pigs? You can make beautiful sounds with your horn, so why do you play like that?" [laughs] We really like that expression. It sounds great. Choking pigs. [laughs]

AAJ: Will you talk about the bassist and drummer in the ma-do band?

SF: I've been playing with the bassist for a long time. More than 20 years. When I graduated from Berklee College of Music, and before I went to NEC, I had been playing some standard stuff, like traditional jazz stuff. I played in many jazz clubs in Tokyo and in hotel lounges. I played with him very often.

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