I first encountered pianist Satoko Fujii at the Center for New Music (C4NM) in February of 2015. She and trumpeter Kappa Maki were on hand to contribute to a series curated by Larry Ochs entitled Existence: Quartet Music for Improvisers. On this occasion the quartet was filled out by Ochs’ Rova colleague Bruce Ackley (soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, and B-flat clarinet) and Jordan Glenn (percussion).
Note the absence of the word “jazz” in that last paragraph. All four of the musicians have been associated with jazz in one way or another; but that C4NM evening was definitely pushing the boundaries of what constituted “free jazz.” This was music that was definitely out there on that “bleeding edge,” quite some distance from the comfort zone of those who prefer to sail under the SFJAZZ flag.
Over the last few months Fujii has released two new CDs, both of which continue to push the boundaries of how a quartet can explore new approaches to free improvisation. The first of these, Aspiration, came out at the beginning of September. It was followed at the end of October by Live at Jazz Room Cortez. If Amazon.com has Web pages for either of these, they have done a very good job of hiding them, not only from their own search engine but also from Google’s. Fortunately, Fujii’s label, Libra Records, has created a CD Store Web page, which lists both Aspiration (her latest Libra release) and Live at Jazz Room Cortez, which was released by Cortez Sound.
Only two musicians play in both of the quartets, Fujii and her husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura. For their Cortez performance, which took place on December 22, 2016, they were joined by violinist Keisuke Ohta and percussionist Takashi Itani. The album has only two tracks, the second of which, “Looking Out Of The Window,” is slightly longer than half an hour in duration. It is preceded by “Convection,” which runs for eighteen and one-half minutes.
The reason I shy away from using the noun “jazz” is that, as one is drawn into this set, one realizes that the building blocks for the improvisation work involve sonorities, rather than tunes or harmonic progressions. Indeed, while there are any number of ways to talk about simultaneities when describing these performances, the very word “chord” feels decidedly out of place. Similarly, the album lists both Ohta and Tamura as vocalists; but their performances have much more to do with phonology than with the conventional sense of vocalizing.
Ultimately, listening is a matter of accepting performance as a sonorous journey, along which the players draw the listener’s attention to a wide diversity of approaches to the creation of sounds. The act of improvisation is one that depends on similar attention from the players themselves. It was quickly apparent that all four members of the C4NM group had highly refined listening skills; and those skills can be appreciated on the Cortez recording, even if they cannot be experienced in the presence of the players themselves.
Aspiration, on the other hand, is a studio recording; and it pushes the envelope of listening skills even further than the live Cortez performance did. (Actually, the recording session took place about a month before the Cortez engagement.) This is particularly critical because percussion has been replaced by real-time electronics, managed by Ikue Mori. Furthermore, the quartet is completed with the addition of a second trumpeter, Wadada Leo Smith, co-founder of the Creative Construction Company and an active member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.
It would be fair to say that Smith has been pushing the envelope of free improvisation longer than any other member of this quartet. On the other hand there are recognizable passages of his duo work with Tamura than one could call profoundly lyrical, and some of his solo improvisation work seems to have inspired Fujii to revisit the virtues of chord progressions. Nevertheless, the overall rhetorical “program” of each of the six pieces on the album owes much to the way in which Mori’s electronic sounds punctuate the instrumental work. This is definitely a technique that charts out territory decidedly different from the domain of percussionists, and the ear needs to acclimate itself to Mori’s approaches. Fortunately, most of the pieces are a little over ten minutes in duration (except for the much shorter “Liberation”); meaning that such acclimation can be achieved through what may be called “mind-sized chunks” of experience.