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Satoko Fujii: The Kanreki Project

Franz A. Matzner By

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I believe jazz is music that is alive, that we cannot see in a museum. Jazz can get any type of music involved and can be in any form. Perhaps some find my idea too extreme, [yet] I believe I inherit the spirit of Jazz that is very free and alive, and that is my approach. —Satoko Fujii
Over four decades of experimentation, Satoko Fujii has made a lasting mark on the contours of modern jazz. The wave after wave of expressive force she has unleashed emanate from the aesthetics of her home country, but are never bound exclusively to it. They form a distinctive sound belonging only to her, yet comprised of wide-ranging influences drawn from the furthest reaches of the global free jazz movement.

In 2018, Fujii turned sixty years old. In Japanese tradition, this represents an important life milestone that is called "kanreki." It is usually marked by a period of reflection and a settling, or coming to terms. It would have been easy for Fujii to manifest this moment with a retrospective album, or perhaps a synthesizing statement distilling the vast product she has delivered over her career, as Fujii currently has upward of 84 individual releases.

That, however, would not mesh with her deeper commitment to free expression, Fujii's vision of music as a continuously evolving, breathing force unable to be bound by the confining dictates of history, age, or the linear flow of time.

"I wanted to celebrate my kanreki in 2018, but [at first] I couldn't decide how...I wanted to do something special, not repeat the same things." explained Fujii.

Ultimately, she decided to challenge herself to surpass her already daunting average of two to four recordings per year and produce one original album per month for the entire year, thus committing herself to an outpouring of creative energy over one year that many would find difficult to achieve—ever.

According to Fujii, accomplishing this allowed her to ..." open a door to get into a new world."

The Kanreki Project

The result is twelve albums of remarkable individuality, each worth a close listening, as well as a series whose expressive depth and consistency of vision can only be fully appreciated by digesting the whole. The body of work is comprised of albums that are fully improvised, others that are both composed and improvised, as well as the through composed Diary 2005-2015 . The works include duet endeavors like Mizu, smaller ensembles like the otherworldly trio-based This Is It!, and larger ensemble productions like the ten piece tour de force Nintey-Nine Years.

Asked how she was able to produce such a variety of work at such an aggressive pace, Fujii responded with telling humility, explaining that for her ..."dealing with many different projects is easier than doing only one project." As an example, she further explained that it is not uncommon for her to generate solo musical concepts while working on large ensemble pieces.

This rhizomatic process appears to be an outgrowth of Fujii's central musical philosophy that "music is totally free and we can do whatever we want..." and accounts for the connected nature of the Kanreki Project, the organic continuity of which is akin to an ecosystem of independently thriving organisms linked by the shared soil of Fujii's artistic heritage and shaped by the forces of her creativity.

One best enters this landscape as an explorer rather than a consumer, where discovery is dependent on active participation and the patient observer is rewarded with the same wonder that comes from immersing oneself in a hitherto undiscovered country. Individual compositions blossom like rare orchids, the vistas of each album explode with a kaleidoscope of colors, textures, and shapes, and the tumultuous, variegated whole cannot be embraced or reductively defined, only experienced as a living, breathing, evolving environment of sound.

Early Years

Fujii started taking piano lessons when she was four, though by then she had already started improvising with piano and voice. She proceeded to study classical piano until she was twenty. A turning point occurred during her high school years. At this time she was studying with the classical pianist and composer, Koji Taku, who was already almost 70 years old. Taku's influence went far beyond the technical aspects of piano.

"When I studied with him, he left the chairman position of the best art and music university because he wanted to play jazz," explained Fujii, "Nobody around me has life like him. All people [seemed to] care about was their position in society. Everyone was busy making money...he loved jazz so I started listening to jazz... One day, I listened to Coltrane's "Love Supreme" on FM radio and I was so moved by something I didn't [quite] understand, but with its deep and strong expression, this was the real first jazz experience for me."

Fujii liked playing music from the very beginning, she explained, adding with emblematic personal and cultural humility that she ..."was never a good musical student." Fujii attended piano lessons with her elder sister, who according to Fujii was more proficient and quickly received recognition. Perhaps revealing a tinge of sibling rivalry, and a subtle hint at her experience operating within the conventional and strictly defined social structures of her time, Fujii explains that this extended time studying eventually helped open the door to her broader view on musical expression, stating—

"I took a long time and still I was not good. [But] because I needed to take this long time, I could gather more learning. I could get other things [about the music] much easier. I was more interested in music that made me work harder."

Fujii soon went from appreciating jazz to immersive study. Even then it took time to fully move away from more conventional systems.

When I started studying jazz, I really thought I had to play in certain forms and I needed to sound like some other great jazz pianist[s]. I tried hard to sound like someone else. I felt [many] other musicians also had this same idea. [Then] when I studied with Paul Bley, he encouraged me to play my own music. I began to have confidence after that to play music that doesn't sound like [any] other.

It is hard to discern whether Fujii's final move toward experimental jazz stems directly from this early exposure to Coltrane and other artists on the radio. It is also hard to distill from these circumspect statements to what degree her turn from classical study to a life in jazz came as a sudden break or a slow evolution, and against what level of resistance from those around her. What is clear is that Fujii's early jazz experiences were shaped by her mentor's unconventional perspectives and brave career choices, and against a backdrop where, though established a decade earlier, free jazz was still met with controversy, even as other developments like fusion, deeper electrification, and experiments marrying complex extended structure with free improvisation were rocking the standard definitions of jazz.
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