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Satoko Fujii: the Gift of Music

Angelo Leonardi By

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One of the most original and prolific voices in jazz today, Satoko Fujii is celebrating 2018, the year of her 60th birthday (which will fall on October 9th), by intensifying her already intense recording schedule. The Japanese pianist and composer will be releasing one CD a month featuring new works for some of her current groups, launching special projects and introducing new bands.

All About jazz: Let's talk about your plan of releasing one CD a month until the end of the year, to mark your 60th birthday.

Satoko Fujii: In January I released Solo, which I recorded live in Japan. That was followed by Atody Man featuring my band KAZE, in February, and Ninety Nine Years by the Fujii Orchestra Berlin, in March. My plan for the coming month is to publish Kira Kira Japan, recorded live in Japan, in April; Trio with Gianni Mimmo and Joe Fonda, in May; This Is It!, with Natsuki Tamura and Takashi Itani, in May. I am still working on the schedule for the releases for the rest of the year, but I expect to put out an acoustic piano-Fender Rhodes duo with Alister Spence, a new piano-bass-drums trio, the new CD by the Fujii Orchestra Tokyo... and other projects I am still working on.

AAJ: As you mentioned, one of the next albums will feature Italian soprano saxophonist Gianni Mimmo and bassist Joe Fonda. With the latter musician, you just released the critically acclaimed album Duet. When did you get the idea of adding Gianni Mimmo to your duo?

SF: Joe and I toured Europe in October 2017. We played with Gianni in Milan and had a great time. The day after we played we went to a recording studio. We both love playing with Gianni.

AAJ: One of your last records, Kisaragi, is a duo with Natsuki Tamura for which you don't use any normal instrumental sounds. The results are dazzling. I've never heard anything like that before. Can you tell us about the motivations behind this musical research?

SF: We wanted to try something new. Most times, we combine non-instrumental sounds with normal sounds to make music. But we were curious about what could be done if we eliminated normal instrumental sounds altogether. We didn't know if we could turn the music into a CD when we recorded it, but we ended up really liking what we did.

AAJ: You started to play piano very young, and you studied classical piano for about fifteen years. You stopped for a few years and then you returned to the piano, but this time as a jazz player. Do you remember your introduction to music as a child and the influence of Fumio Ibatashi on that educational path?

SF: I was very shy when I was very young. I didn't want to go out and play with other kids. A piano was in our house because my older sister already had started playing it. At the time, the piano was my only friend, a friend I could talk to and play with. Improvising on the piano was like talking to that friend. I asked my parents not to put me in kindergarten. Since they thought that it would be better for me to be out of the house sometimes and have some social life they took me out to take piano lessons, but after fifteen years of classical piano lessons, I found I couldn't improvise. I felt so bad because I remembered how much I enjoyed improvising as a kid. I could improvise with my voice so I decided to leave piano. I began to listen to jazz in the clubs of Tokyo. I was so moved with Fumio Itabashi's piano playing. His music made me remember how much I loved playing piano and so I returned to playing piano.

AAJ: What do you remember of the Tokyo musical scene in the seventies?

SF: I was very young then, but I still remember the energy of the musical scene in Japan then. There were many active underground cultural things happening in Japan in the seventies, including "Butoh Dance."

AAJ: How did you decide to study at Berklee? Can you recall any memories about that time?

SF: After studying classical music I began taking jazz piano lessons from Fumio Itabashi for two years and then I started playing professionally in a cabaret big band in Tokyo. The band played some Latin repertoire, Count Basie, etc. There was a show every night with a guest singer. I was not good at all. But many musicians told me that if I continued gigging every night I would improve. Well... it didn't happen. I felt I was not that kind of person and that in order to improve I needed to undertake more formal studies. I tried to find some jazz school, but back then there were no good jazz schools in Japan so I decided to go to Berklee, in Boston.

AAJ: After Berklee you studied with Paul Bley at the New England Conservatory. What did you learn from him? What was his approach to teaching like?

SF: I was a professional musician even before going to Berklee. I had moved back to Japan after graduating from Berklee. I tried many different things, playing jazz clubs, TV shows, writing articles for jazz magazines... In the process I lost sight of my musical goals by doing too many different things. That is the reason I went back to Boston to attend the New England Conservatory. When I started studying with Paul Bley, I didn't have any confidence about my music and even about myself. I was not sure if I was doing it right. Studying with him was just like a revolution for me. Until then I wanted to play like someone else. We didn't spend time in front of a piano. We talked, talked and talked, often at a café near the Conservatory. I sometimes found I could play something that I couldn't play before I talked to him at the café. That way, I started accepting my music and myself.

AAJ: Can you remember the teachers and the musicians that influenced your compositional perspective?

SF: At the New England Conservatory I have studied with George Russell, Joe Maneri and Charlie Banacos and they all influenced me a lot. George's concept, in particular, helped me when I composed.

AAJ: Which musicians have you enjoyed working with most?

SF: I am the luckiest musician for having so many great collaborators. I enjoy working with all of them. I still remember with fondness playing with the great bassist Norikatsu Koreyasu, who passed away in 2011.

AAJ: Can you describe the influence of Japanese traditions on your musical conceptions?

SF: The biggest influence of Japanese music might be the concept of MA that is, a space between sound. Japanese culture puts great meaning in space. Sometimes "space" tells more.

AAJ: Among the albums you've recorded, which are the ones you prefer?

SF: My albums are like my children. I love all of them.

AAJ: Do you feel major differences between your New York Big Band and your Tokyo Big Band? Do you change your writing in any way depending on their different line-ups?

SF: I started playing with the Fujii Orchestra New York in 1996 and then moved back to Japan in 1997 and started playing with the Fujii Orchestra Tokyo. At first, I relied on the same repertoire for both, and I was so surprised by how the two groups played it so differently. It was neither better nor worse. It was just very different. I released a double album entitled Double Take, with the Fujii Orchestra New York on one CD and the Fujii Orchestra Tokyo on the other CD playing exactly the same songs. Now I try to compose different pieces for each Orchestra. I know the sound and the musicians of each Orchestra very well, and my writing gets influenced and inspired by their individualities.

AAJ: What inspired you to start your own label, Libra Records? Most of the covers have marvelous paintings of Ichiji Tamura. Can you introduce this painter?

SF: Natsuki and I decided to launch a label because that was the easiest way for us to release our music. We didn't want to spend too much time shopping our recordings to various labels. Ichiji Tamura is Natsuki's father. He passed away in 1995. He left some books. He also was a pioneer of people with disabilities in Japan.

AAJ: Do you believe in the healing power of music?

SF: I was in NYC on 9/11. After the attack, for more than twenty-four hours there was no music coming from radio, TV, cafés, restaurants... Natsuki and I had to travel to Boston the next day. We went to the station to find out if there were any trains running. They had music at the station and I could feel the music sink in my heart, and in other people's hearts. It was just "elevator music," nothing special. But I realized that music could heal us. From that moment on, I believe that music has an immense power to heal people.

Photo credit: Mau Zorzi.

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