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The Essential Satoko Fujii, Part 4: Quartets


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I wrote the music on paper and this band made it sound so alive. I am so lucky to always get such great collaborators.
—Satoko Fujii
Satoko Fujii's recorded output comes at you hard and fast. It can overwhelm. In 2018—in celebration of her sixtieth birthday—the pianist/composer/bandleader released an album a month. Not download offerings, but real, handsomely produced CDs, with top of-the-line cover art and sturdy cardboard covers—jewels for the eye, ear and hand. Several other years have seen a release schedule nearly as aggressive as 2018's. And she has been at it for the entire twenty-first century, after her start a decade earlier, with, most notably, Something About Water (Libra Records, 1996), a duo outing with fellow pianist (and her mentor) Paul Bley. This "Essential Satoko Fujii" series is an effort to help the uninitiated and under-initiated get a handle on Fujii's artistry, solo, duo, trio, quartet and big band.

Satoko Fujii Quartet
Libra Records

An unprepared encounter with Vulcan can shock the system. To quote Jerry Lee Lewis, it can "Shake your nerves and rattle your brains." The opener, "The Sun In A Moonlight Night," begins with low-in-the-mix zombie warbling from bassist Takeharu Hayakawa which eventually bursts into a full band, end-of-creation sonic death machine soundtrack—H.G, Wells giant Martian robots marching on the city, leaving smoldering destruction behind. This music is as hard-driving as it gets; this is the audacity and in-your-face power to which heavy metal rock bands aspire, usually with less success than Fujii's efforts.

Satoko Fujii Ma-Do
Desert Ship
Not Two Records

This acoustic quartet, with, again, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, is almost as fierce as Vulcan, opening with the headlong, barging-through-the-doors "February—Locomotive—February." And once through those doors, the quartet incites a riot—Tamura's trumpet sounding like an enraged elephant, the piano, bass and drums a soundtrack to a cardboard box full of wood blocks and pipe wrenches tumbling down the stairs. The set isn't entirely this intense; there are moments of repose. But it is a strident repose, when it is not menacingly magisterial.

Satoko Fujii Four
When We Were There

Trumpeter Natsuki Tamura joins Fujii's first great piano trio, with drummer Jim Black and bassist Mark Dresser, with Fujii on piano. Tamura's presence adds a new dimension to the trio's already daring mode of expression. The music is tumultuous and freewheeling. The title tune finds the group in a lyrical mood, flirting with the mainstream, teasing with some slamming rock beats behind Fujii's repeated phrases. "In Your Dream" explores tone poem territory. It is easy here to forget about instrumentation and concentrate on the sound. The success of Fujii's Four can be attributed, in part, to the melding of the four distinct personalities (and an antagonism/cooperation dynamic in play among them), as well as, in larger part, the freedom she allows her collaborators, resulting in obvious listening/responding modes. When We Were There is another reinvention from the ever-evolving Satoko Fujii—a riveting listening experience for those with open ears.

Satoko Fujii Min-Yoh Ensemble
Libra Records

The instrumentation is unusual: Fujii's piano and Tamura's trumpet joining forces with Curtis Hasselbring's trombone and Andrea Parkins' accordion. This is one of Fuji's more challenging, not-for-the-faint-of heart listening experiences. It is at times bombastic (the trombone will do that; so will Fujii and Tamura when the moods strikes), at others times it is surreal (the accordion will do that, in conjunction with Tamura's extended trumpet techniques) and sometimes pensive and introspective. Complex sounds, full of bits of beauty and wonder.

Satoko Fujii Tobira
Yomiyo Ni Karasu
Libra Records

Fujii debuted her Satoko Fujii New Trio in 2013 with Spring Storm, (Libra Records). As she did with the previously mentioned When We Were There, featuring drummer Jim Black and bassist Mark Dresser, she bolsters her New Trio here with her trumpeter/husband Natsuki Tamura, creating, again, an intensely provocative sound on Yamiyo Ni Karasu. These are four strong personalities, and they play with a supreme confidence, and an extreme exultation. For all Fujii's often dense, percussive, powerhouse technique, she is also, in her compositions, a master of space, a master of interludes of nuance and delicacy that are often set off against an explosive drum interjections from Takashi Itani, or a sputtering, spitting Tamura trumpet, or a dark, muscular bass statement from Todd Nicholson. With Fujii tunes, there is often the mood of entering an unsettled weather system, with full force gales giving way to eye-of-the-storm tranquility, then a wafting breeze and gentle raindrops, then a huge rumble of thunder that shakes the soul, and rattles the brains.

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