"Sandstorm, the opening cut on this album, is one of those all-hands-on-deck-and-make-some-noise extravaganzas that seem to be coming back into fashion (check out "3:10 Local on Dan Willis's Velvet Gentlemen
(OmniTone,2006), or "Cosmic Tomes For Sleep Walking Lovers Part 1 on the Exploding Star Orchestra's We Are All From Somewhere Else
(Thrill Jockey, 2007)). But, though it's a spirited performance, it's slightly false advertising: When We Were There
is an adventurous record, indeed, but quieter and less free than the opening salvo leads one to believe.
There is no shortage of freer explorations of the outer reaches of the jazz universe, but they occur not during the ensemble passages (as on "Sandstorm ), but instead during individual players' interventions.
Leader and pianist Satoko Fujii and drummer Jim Black
are the traditionalists, it seems, and bassist Mark Dresser
the anarchist. Trumpeter Natsuki Tamura
shuttles back and forth between both camps. He declaims the lovely theme of "A Path through the Garden with limpid precision, but gurgles like a combination of soup coming to a boil and a crop duster approaching overhead on "A Diversion, the marvelous closing number. Fujii supplies phraseshard and driving, as on "Nourishment, or sweet and pretty, as on "Nocturne that provide a kind of scaffolding for the performances. Black, for his part, provides ready beats (even if, as on "Nourishment, he hears a pulse different from what the leader is playing), including some savory funk on the title cut.
"An Excursion begins with an almost conventional, breezily post-bop theme, settling into a vamp for Tamura's increasingly unconventional soloing. The vamp, with the exception of Fujii's piano, seems to decompose before our ears, delightfullyand then, unexpectedly, the group returns to close, primly, with the theme. The same procedure is applied, with variations, on the title cut. It's that return of the head that comes across as almost a witty parody of the head-solos-head format.
These elements along the wayBlack's funky drumming, Fujii's stolid accompaniment, the return of the head after the solosprovide helpful signposts amidst the sandstorm, making When We Were There
less fearsome than it might first appear. The brevity of virtually all of the cuts contributes to this as well.
Are Fujii and her bandmates rewarding our short attention spans? I can't escape the feeling that you're supposed to have to work harder for this kind of music. But neither can I shake the feeling of salutary inevitability that hangs about this fine record.