Satoko Fujii: Undulation, Live!!, Maru & Kobe Yee!!


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This cornucopia of pianist Satoko Fujii's large ensemble work is a daunting package. It's heavy in more ways than one. Four full-length CDs, three of them over an hour in length and one clocking in at 52:31, plus a simultaneously released concert DVD, add up to one heck of a portion of adventurous music to digest in one sitting—or for that matter in dozens of sittings. Listeners will be assimilating, mulling over and enjoying this music for a long time to come.

Brimming with pounding unison riffs, dense tutti passages, driving rockish and funkified rhythms, plenty of slashing and often dissonant solos, there's a stormy, brawny, in-your-face aesthetic present in a majority of this material. Bassists and drummers get a thorough aerobic workout.

Although it may seem to be an obvious point, the rhythm sections in these groups serve as fulcrums. With the sheer bulk of the structures Fujii builds as a composer, arranger and orchestrator—polished steel and black glass skyscrapers—the foundations must be rock-solid.

Subtlety is not a word that immediately springs to mind when describing Fujii's orchestras. There's sturm und drang massiveness, an athletic and sometimes almost confrontational ambiance. Orchestra Nagoya in particular has a bold, aggressive, raging edginess fueled by the excoriating electric guitar pyrotechnics of Yasuhiro Usui.

A number of parallels might be drawn between Fujii and Cecil Taylor. Both are diminutive in physical stature but colossal in talent, technique, originality, vigor and intensity. As pianists, both can spin seemingly endless, incessant skeins of dense, opaque improvisations packed with climaxes, thorny byways of pyramided tensions and releases; and conversely they're both capable of scudding cirrus passages, feathery impressionistic lyricism akin to improvised Debussy. As group leaders, both seem to draw the best playing from their colleagues through sheer force of personality.

Satoko Fujii Orchestra NY

Seven out of the eight compositions on Undulation are thematically linked by symbolic imagery. In Japanese, the word for Monday also means moon, Tuesday is fire, Wednesday is water, Thursday is wood, Friday is metal, Saturday is the Earth, and Sunday is the sun. The parallels to the list of elements in several traditional cultures are apparent.

Conspicuously absent are air and ether. But the elastic, slippery electric bass playing of the remarkable Stomu Takeiski and the varieties of texture and timbre mastered by drummer Aaron Alexander (a Seattle native who moved to New York City in 1993) provide plenty of space and dynamic range throughout Undulation. The New York rhythm team is by far the most versatile and subtle.

There are scores of notable solos sprinkled throughout. It would take a book-length review to do justice to them all. A few that stand out include: tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin's muscular opening to "Metal," driven by Aaron Alexander's limber drumming; Alexander's propulsive ensemble work and colorful solo on "Fire"; and the rather forlorn-sounding alto saxophone of Briggan Krauss (another fine player with a Pacific Northwest connection) on "The Earth." The latter piece is atmospheric and texturally inventive; it may be earthy but it's far from earthbound.

Satoko Fujii Orchestra Tokyo
Libra Records

Orchestra Tokyo is blessed with a raft of talented and distinctive players too. The gritty alto saxophone of Kunihiro Izumi levitates "Fue Taiko," which begins with nearly three minutes of duo interplay with drummer Akira Horikoshi before Fujii layers in the ensemble. Izumi also plays end-blown wooden flutes (sometimes two simultaneously) very effectively.

There's a down-and-dirty quasi-blues shuffle segment with fervent alto testifying and a manic ending with Horikoshi battering away and ferocious free alto. The energy is evoked in athletic unfettered form with little of the choreographed complexity of the tradition; the complexity here is decidedly free form. "Scramble" reminds me of an Oliver Nelson big band chart fast-forwarded into the present, with busy soprano saxophone work from Sachi Hayasaka and bawdy trombone courtesy of Yasuyuki Takahashi.

Satoko Fujii Orchestra Nagoya
Libra Records

The DVD of the Tokyo concert is well produced with crisply directed camerawork and decent sound. It's odd that little attention is paid to the leader, but perhaps that's the way she wanted it. Fujii plays very little piano in the performance and takes no solos; a large majority of her time is spent conducting the orchestra. Maru has a similar focus, with no piano at all.

Fujii's composition "Bennie's Waltz" is heard on both Live!! and Maru. The piece is among the most immediately accessible and emotionally direct ones in a scarily prolific crop of significant new works. Both versions have a comparable contour but the radically different personalities of the soloists differentiate the interpretations in very marked ways. Trumpet and baritone saxophone are the featured instruments on this chart.

Tokyo trumpeter Yoshihito Fukumoto displays a gorgeous mid-range tone, earthy growls and a fluid imagination; his baritone saxophone colleague Ryuichi Yoshida similarly tends to lavish more attention on the big horn's rich mid-range—at least in his solo—though the opening duo anchored by bass col arco features a few falsetto squiggles for contrast.

Nagoya trumpeter Tsutomu Watanabe is a flashier player and spends more time in the higher reaches of his instrument's range, often reminding me of some of the Cuban virtuosos, combining lyricism and bravado; his baritone saxophone colleague Daion Kobayashi is prolix and intense, a post-Bluiett stomper and wailer. The press release accompanying this package aptly described Kobayashi's playing as "blustering deconstructions." One wonders who Bennie is... I can certainly envision sui generis tenorist Bennie Wallace playing this composition, though he may not be the Bennie in the title.

Satoko Fujii Orchestra Kobe
Kobe Yee!!
Crab Apple Records

The waltz and the title selection from Kobe Yee!! (a nuevo tango à la Fujii) point to Carla Bley as a possible influence, particularly her writing for Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra. Orchestra Nagoya has a bottom-heavy sound quite reminiscent of Bley's fascination with the low-register instruments; trombonist Toshinori Terukina doubles on euphonium and the tuba of Tatsuki Yoshino has a prominent role in the ensemble as well as a couple of cameos. Baritone saxophone plays an important part in all four ensembles.

Another—perhaps oblique, perhaps not—connection to Bley is Fujii's sense of humor. This facet of her personality emerges most directly in "Sola" from Orchestra Kobe. Clocking in at 17:26, this is the longest piece in the package. It traverses a wide swath of musical terrain without ever losing focus. There are passages of dark expressionism, scorching free-for-all explosions, a soaring theme, and some hilariously satirical ersatz militaristic march-like interludes. It's a montage superimposed on a collage.

Each of these four discs has its own distinctive personality and highlights. Neophytes would do well beginning with Undulation, then moving on to Live!!, Kobe Yee!! and Maru. Aficionados of eardrum shredding post-Hendrix, post-Sharrock electric guitar might want to reverse that order.

The press release for this War And Peace of large orchestra jazz acknowledges Fujii as one of the leading big band composers of her generation. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I'd rephrase that as the leading big band composer of her generation.

Tracks and Personnel


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.


Tracks: Scramble; Water; An Unpaved Road; A Brick House; A Submarine; Fue Taiko; Bennie's Waltz.

Personnel: Sachi Hayasaka: soprano & alto saxophone; Kunihiro Izumi: alto saxophone; Kenichi Matsumoto, Masaya Kimura, Ryuichi Yoshida: baritone saxophone; Natsuki Tamura, Takao Watanabe, Yoshihito Fukumoto, Yusaku Shirotani: trumpet; Haguregumo Nagamatsu, Tetsuya Higashi: trombone; Satoko Fujii: piano; Toshiki Nagata: bass; Akira Horikoshi: drums.


Tracks: Fire; Slip-on; Pakonya; Maru; Yattoko Mittoko; Bennie's Qaltz; Sakuradori sen.

Personnel: Satoko Fujii: conductor; Shingo Takeda, Akihiko Yoshimaru: alto saxophone; Yoshiyuki Hirao, Yoshihiro Hanawa: tenor saxophone; Daion Kobayashi: baritone saxophone; Natsuki Tamura, Tsutomu Watanabe, Takahiro Tsujita, Misaki Ishiwata: trumpet; Tomoyuki Mihara: trombone; Toshinori Terukina: trombone/euphonium; Tatsuki Yoshino: tuba; Yasuhiro Usui: guitar; Shigeru Suzuki: bass; Hisamine Kondo: drums.

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.

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