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Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York: Shiki

John Sharpe By

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Even among established groupings Japanese composer and pianist Satoko Fujii continues to search for new means of expression. For the ninth disc from her New York Orchestra, Fujii departs from accustomed practice, particularly in the 36-minute plus title track which dominates proceedings. Truly orchestral in its scope, Fujii wields her composer's wand in a way which largely avoids some of the expected intricacy, in favour of more opaque connections, organically developed soundscapes and ragged choruses, from which the compositional signposts unexpectedly emerge. The loose painterly style recalls the trumpeter Bill Dixon's large scale works, in that the talented cast is given ample opportunity to shape matters.

"Shiki," meaning four seasons, starts impressionistically and brooding, soon unfurling a scene-setting trombone solo over sparse rhythm. Thereafter the changes come in dramatic fashion, featuring unaccompanied spots, such as a juddering drum solo from Aaron Alexander, as well as collective inventions. One trumpet briefly evokes "Abide With Me" in tandem with clattering drums, before a conversational exchanges between multiple brass. Later a tenor saxophone revels in burnished exposition, before moving in dialogue with eloquent muted trombone. While the omission of any identification of soloists may reinforce the point that this is primarily an ensemble music, it is frustrating not to know who is in the spotlight. And as if to emphasise the point the piece closes with plaintive trumpet alone.

Two shorter cuts complete the program. Reprised from the pianist's 2013 solo album of the same name, "Gen Himmel" opens with a cumulative murmurings coalescing into a hymn-like swell, embellished with horn affirmations and a whistling trumpet fluttering like a banner overhead, to create an affecting emotionally overt tribute to late bassist Norikatsu Koreyasu (from her Ma-do quartet). Husband Natsuki Tamura's "Bi Ga Do Da" posits a rocky vamp with chanting vocal interjections. It's the sort of piece that's fun in concert but palls over repeated listens. And that's a shame as the number includes a wildly waspish trumpet outing and is the only place where Fujii cuts loose on piano in a mayhem of clusters and crashes.

Overall something of a hodge podge, strong in parts, but lacking the coherence of most of Fujii's copious output. Still that's what can happen when you relentlessly push at the boundaries, seeking to expand on what has gone before.

Track Listing: Shiki; Gen Himmel; Bi Ga Do Da.

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

Title: Shiki | Year Released: 2014 | Record Label: Libra Records

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