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Satoko Fujii: Kobe Yee!! & Undulation


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The Japanese-American axis of improvisation has a long and eventful history, further complicated in an age of confused identities. Satoko Fujii, one of Japan's brightest and most forward thinking musicians, wears this story on her sleeve, emerging from the bedrock of cultural confusion with, at last, the hope of progress.

Born in 1958, Fujii has cultivated an idiosyncratic approach to piano playing, composition, and arrangement, melding diverse, often conflicting narratives. Her music is stylistically elusive; it bears the inklings of dozens of sources, compacted, deconstructed, and blended into something wholly, strikingly modern. It is, moreover, obstinately Japanese, and decisively now: the hearty steps of a giant among an Americanized landscape, heritage in tow.

The conceit of identity negotiation has, in any case, worked for Fujii; her ambitions have resulted in a wellspring of excellent new releases, each with a different orchestra.

Satoko Fujii Orchestra Kobe
Kobe Yee!!
Crab Apple Records

Orchestra Kobe's Kobe Yee!! is a masterpiece of modern big band writing. This is a feeling, sentient recording, reactive and spontaneous; the Kobe big band moves, breathes, and speaks as an entity, every atom inseparably bonded to the whole, where the mood can shift from blustery and frustrated to romantic repose with measured, contemplative grace.

The six pieces, written by either Fujii or trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, are stylistically diverse and intellectually rigorous, and it's fascinating to hear the final, unified construction. Orchestra Kobe is not only a well-studied modern improvising ensemble, but it is also a terrific vehicle for advanced orchestration, managing the most complicated charts with gusto. The ensemble adeptly integrates chaotic group passages with driving, pulsating beats ("Shikaku ), manages difficult rhythmic counterpoint against powerful mini-concertos ("Fire ), and saunters through the densest charts with passion and wit (check out the careening fifths and rough harmolodics beneath Yoshikazu Isaki's alto on "The Future Of The Past, sounding like Marion Brown on a tear through the London Phil).

The reference points are many: the soloists are well versed in both the delirious anachronisms of the 1960s' 'energy school' of free players as well as the more anarchistic, atheistic sounds of European free music. Fujii herself recalls all manner of pianists, from Cecil Taylor to Paul Bley to Ahmad Jamal, and the orchestrations are as tricky and thoughtful—at times, uncannily similar to—Ornette Coleman's orchestral pieces and Andrew Hill's large group music. Underlining the mix, however, are the lyricism and pathos of traditional Japanese music, and when the music gets to singing—like it does on the Latin-flavored Kobe Yee!!—the heart of the Rising Sun is undeniable.

Satoko Fujii Orchestra NY

It's fascinating, then, to hear Fujii shift this aesthetic into an American context. Undulation, featuring Orchestra New York, is as integrated a mix of Downtown avant-garde and Japanese modern improvisation as one is likely to find. There's a darker sense about this album, tempering the more playful side of Fujii's music with undertones of dread.

Much of this has to do with the actual 'bottom end': Aaron Alexander is a much rougher drummer than Kobe's Yoshikazu Isaki—the former rumbles where the latter would bounce—and electric bassist Stomu Takeishi supplies the American band with a punchier, more rubbery sound. This rhythm team is the centripetal force of the ensemble, yanking at the horns like Jupiter would so many moons. The album can be read as a tug of war between high and low frequencies, meeting at some shadowy, although hardly muddled, middle ground.

These characteristics stand in marked contrast to Orchestra Kobe. Whereas the Japanese ensemble is unified by spirit, Orchestra America is fused in tension. This friction reaches to the fore from the opening moments of "Metal, as Ellery Eskelin's doughy, terpsichorean tenor saxophone vies for space amidst Takeishi and Alexander's chattering rhythms. Tension is certainly evident on the closer "The Earth, a mysterious, ephemeral performance where whispered, ghosted tones slowly decay into an all-out ensemble melee on the level of Roscoe Mitchell's more temperamental moments. It's a dire, anxious recording from start to finish, drawing the listener into its sound world in the most exhilarating, dangerous ways.

What's most interesting is that, despite the dynamic dissimilarities between Kobe Yee!! and Undulation, that specific sense of lyricism—Fujii's earthy, folkish sense of song—never completely disappears. With Orchestra Kobe, it sings bright and true; with Orchestra New York, it screams in ecstasy.

Satoko Fujii's skill rests in reconciling the irreconcilable, and on these two recordings, straddling opposite sides of the world, she finds the middle ground. This middle ground, however, is her own: the story of a country as much as it is the tale of the modern improvising musician. Despite its peregrinations, the soul of the music remains the same—and this, finally, is the crucible of sound, where the elements of cultures torn asunder may cohere and a new world, Japanese, American, and so much more, moves forward.

Tracks and Personnel

Kobe Yee!!

Tracks: Fire; Tobifudo; The Future Of The Past; Kobe Yee!!; Shikaku; Sola.

Personnel: Satoko Fujii: piano; Natsuki Tamura, Jo Funato, Tadahiro Fusahara: trumpet; Tomomi Taniguchi, Tommy: trombone; Kou Iwata, Yasuhisa Mizutani: alto saxophone; Eiichiro Arasaki, Tsutomu Takei: tenor saxophone; Keizo Nobori: baritone saxophone; Tatsuki Yoshino: tuba; Hiroshi Funato: bass; Yoshikazu Isaki: drums.


Tracks: Metal; Water; Wood; The Moon; The Sun; Undulation; Fire; The Earth.

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

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