courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz Communications
Today was my first opportunity to listen to the March installment in Satoko Fujii’s plan to release one new album for every month of this calendar year, the year in which she will reach the age of 60 (on October 9). The title of the March album is Ninety-Nine Years, and it is the first album of this cycle in which Fujii does not perform. Rather, the album presents five compositions (one of which is entitled “Ninety-Nine Years”), which are the first pieces written expressly for Orchestra Berlin. Since Amazon.com continues to ignore Fujii’s recordings, the best way to track this twelve-album cycle is still through the CD Store Web page on the Web site for Libra records.
The name of the group is a bit prankish; but then it would probably be just as prankish to describe it as a “small big band,” which is basically what it is. It consists of tenor saxophonists Matthias Schubert and Gebhard Ullmann, baritone saxophonist Paulina Owczarek, trumpeters Richard Koch, Lina Allemano, and Natsuki Tamura, trombonist Matthias Müller, bassist Jan Roder, and drummers Michael Griener and Peter Orins. Readers probably know by now that Tamura is Fujii’s husband, and Orins was part of the “French half” of the Kaze quartet, whose album Atody Man was Fujii’s February installment.
Orchestra Berlin was first convened by Fujii in 2015. She had written a piece called “Ichigo Ichie” for a ten-piece ensemble on a commission from the Chicago Jazz Festival. Back in Berlin she wanted to record the piece. She worked with Ullmann to form a similar ensemble for the recording session (whose result is also available at the Libra CD Store); and so Orchestra Berlin was formed.
Having now listened to a variety of different Fujii albums for resources of different sizes, I am struck by the way in which, regardless of the number of people in the group, the result always seems to bear a decided exploratory quality. To the extent that Fujii is working in a domain that borders on both composed and free jazz, her results differ decidedly from one of the most “orchestral” approaches to jazz improvisation still “on the books,” John Coltrane’s “Ascension.” What makes such comparison feasible is that the number of performers participating in the recording sessions for the Ascension album is almost the same as the size of Orchestra Berlin, eleven rather than ten.
As is often the case, however, understanding comes from considering the differences, rather than the similarities. The “core” for “Ascension” was Coltrane’s quartet at the time the recording was made (June of 1965): Coltrane on tenor saxophone with rhythm from McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums. To this group Coltrane added two more tenors (Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders), two altos (John Tchicai and Marion Brown), two trumpets (Freddie Hubbard) and a second bass (Art Davis). The “ground rules” were basically those of a rondo: Each player has his own opportunity to dive deep into an unrestrained solo, and the solos were separated by episodes of full-ensemble free blowing (which also accounted for the beginning and the conclusion).
That exploratory nature of Fujii’s approach, which is as evident in Kaze performances as it is on this new recording, tends to begin with a single voice gradually unfolding a single idea. That idea is then picked up by one or more other players through a process that walks a fine line between repetition and embellishment. Sometimes two voices may align with at least a suggestion of harmony, but these occasions seem to be exceptional and more likely to occur when fewer players are involved. The proper metaphor may be somewhat like a roundtable discussion of specialists, where each is capable of introducing individual ideas and all are capable of bouncing those ideas back with different spins.
Having introduced Kaze as a reference point for comparing and generalizing, it is worth nothing that there is far more variation in track duration on the Atody Man album than there is on Ninety-Nine Years. This may suggest that the ground rules for Orchestra Berlin take more account of part-whole relationships than lie behind Kaze improvisations. On the other hand those durations may just be the artifacts of what came out of the recording studio without any deeper significance. Of far greater interest is that ten musicians can engage in the musical equivalent of open discussion with the same facility as the two-pairs organization of Kaze. Any inquiry into why this should be the case is probably secondary to the willingness to listen attentively to how the Orchestra Berlin players engage among themselves.