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.

Beyond the shifting musical landscape of the era, Fujii's musical gestation took place in an equally volatile social context. 1970s Japan was in the midst of significant cultural change, the upheaval of which mirrored the larger social conflict erupting in the United States and to a lesser extent Europe, but which was defined also by the unsettled historical processes of post-war American occupation, economic recovery, and a re-configuring of many of Japan's previously most venerable, inviolable, and to some eyes, constrictive institutions and hierarchical structures.

Like in the United States, jazz—and rock and roll—became deeply identified with this cauldron of change and a defining part of a burgeoning youth and arts movement that embraced increased openness and equality.

"I was and am always so comfortable being a jazz musician. I never felt discrimination," articulated Fujii. "Because male jazz musicians are very open minded and they value music as music, they don't care that I am a woman. [This is] one of the reasons that I like being a musician is because of this [openness]."

In this historical context, it is hard to imagine that Fujii's choice was easy, and it speaks to both her deep commitment to personal expression and the grit required to pursue that expression outside the established order.

Defining Jazz

This also helps account for Fujii's definition of what it means to play jazz, which is both expansive and dynamic. "I believe jazz is music that is alive, that we cannot see in a museum," states Fujii. "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."

This approach also is tied to the exceedingly distinct Japanese aesthetic, an important characteristic of which is the embrace of imperfection, the recognition that capturing the random element or the "flaw" is a critical aspect of artistic expression. Another important element across Japanese artistic tradition is the use of silence and empty space.

"I think the Japanese aesthetic sense is a little different from the Western one," explains Fujii. "For example, we like asymmetry and we feel symmetry is not so interesting. We try not to express everything and leave some space that can express even more... I always try to put silence, or space, between notes, or sound."

There are clear parallels between this perspective and principles undergirding the free jazz movement, which may help account for Japanese musicians seeming proclivity for the more experimental jazz lineages. It also helps support Fujii's thesis that there is a very strong, unique, and original Japanese jazz tradition.

"It is hard to describe with words, but the music is very strong and full of energy. [It can be] kind of extreme, aggressive and intense. Japanese people are quiet and calm, but when they go out, they go far out. For example, Japanese hardcore music is also famous in other countries because of its extreme intensity."


No description of Fujii's oeuvre or the Kanreki Project would be complete without underscoring her commitment to the collaborative process and her ability to partner with a stream of equally accomplished innovators from around the globe, including bassist Joe Fonda, Australian pianist Alister Spence, trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith, Italian soprano saxophonist Gianni Mimmo, countrymen and percussionist Takashi Itani, the esteemed electronic artist Ikue Mori, as well as husband, life-partner, and trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, whose frequent appearances throughout Kanreki are notable both for their musical contributions and the foundational element their partnership brings to the overall continuity and success of the series.

Fujii first met Tamura when she was twenty-seven and working as the pianist for the house band in a Tokyo cabaret. "He had played in the band before I was there" described Fujii "and he sometimes came to the band to warm up when he didn't have a gig." Fujii was impressed by Tamura from the outset and looked up to him because he was already a successful musician who was playing in one of the best big bands in Japan. The attraction grew from there and went far beyond the initial, mere admiration, his sound and approach mirroring hers.

"He is totally free to make music," says Fujii. "He is not afraid to do anything. He is very strong to follow his heart."

In the ensuing thirty-three years, Fujii and Tamura have gone on to form a fully entwined partnership that transcends any individual project and is based on respect of each other's individuality, shared values, and extends beyond musical collaboration to many other aspects of their lives.

"We actually do things together!" jests Fujii, then adding, "we cook together, clean together... we have the same values, even though we are very different in many ways. We both enjoy our differences and respect each other." This flows into their playing, making it different from performing with other musicians ..."because we do not have to hold back at all. And at the same time, we respect each other. I cannot make music in the way he does."

Another frequent collaborator who appears several times on the Kanreki Project is Ikue Mori, whose innovation with electronics has influenced multiple genres and brings a particularly distinct tonal and textural quality to Fujii's compositions.

"She is a great musician who can make music richer with her real, original voice." explains Fujii, expanding that for her, "it is more important to play with 'who' than to play with which instrument. She is a very delicate and dynamic musician!"

Fujii describes her work with Mori as part of a larger philosophy of expansiveness that looks beyond conventional instrumentation, arrangement, or even the perceived limits of instruments themselves.

I don't want to limit myself to make music. I am open to use anything in my music. Electronics and effects are not an exception. I myself used to play synthesizer. Even with conventional instruments, I would like to extract new sounds out of them. That is why I often play piano strings. Remember, 300 years ago, piano was not a conventional instrument in the same way some see electronics today.

Toward An Endless Horizon

Limitlessness—this best describes the essential quality that permeates the vast, diffuse, many faceted nature of the Kanreki Project and Fujii's artistry. Her general ethic, and this project in particular, is based on an endless striving that by definition cannot be satisfied or completed. At its very core lies a deep, personal motivation that, like her music, is somehow concrete in its detail and ephemeral in its boundlessness. It is expressive of the paradox that drives the avant-garde: communication of the never-ending, to make manifest a perpetual evolution that flows from the most personal and individual out to the infinite.

I have had my musical goal for a long time. When my grandmother lost her ability to hear she told me that she started hearing very beautiful music ringing in her ears. Music that she had never heard when her ears could hear. I asked her how the music was. Since she was not a musician, she couldn't explain or sing it. She passed away a long time ago. I am still so curious what she heard. There is no way to find out, but I would like to make the music that she heard which is beautiful and no one has heard before.

It is tempting to imagine what would satisfy Fujii's goal of expressing her grandmother's silent music, and whether the Kanreki Project comes close to achieving this ultimate goal. But this suggestion would seem to belie the essence of Fujii's musical approach and misunderstand the message of the Kanreki Project. Far from an end point, the ambitious Kanreki Project is a deliberate inversion of the usual meaning of "kanreki"—and a direct challenge to how we perceive the milestones of aging, perhaps particularly with respect to women. Fundamentally, it stands as a marker of Fujii's continued pursuit of a music beyond definition, stasis, and the conventional understanding of sound.

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