Sunday, June 10, 2018

Satoko Fujii’s Birthday Releases for April and May

courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz Communications

Readers may have noticed that I have fallen behind in my effort to keep up with the twelve albums that Japanese jazz pianist Satoko Fujii plans to release in celebration of her forthcoming 60th birthday. Those readers probably know that I have been trying to manage several even larger projects over the last couple of months. For better or worse, projects that hit me “in bulk” tend to eat up more attention than those that emerge at the more gradual pace of one release per month.

Readers probably know by now the latter is the case for Fujii’s release plans. Her 60th birthday will be celebrated on October 9, but she has extended that celebration through her plan to release a new album for every month of this calendar year. I had no trouble keeping up with the releases for January, February, and March; but now I shall try to get back on track by discussing the releases for April and May in a single article.

Over the course of my efforts, I have been grousing about the difficulty in finding Fujii’s releases on I have thus advised readers that the best way to keep up with her birthday project is through the CD Store Web page on the Web site for Libra Records, which has provided the platform for most of her recording projects. As a result, I take some comfort in noting that Bright Force, the April release, does, indeed, have its own Amazon Web page. Sadly, the May release, Triad, is not so fortunate (at least not yet).

Both of these recent releases definitely count as major projects. Bright Force is a “live” (unedited) recording of a session by Fujii’s “collaborative quartet” Kira Kira. Fujii brings her piano to trumpet work by her husband Natsuki Tamura, drumming by Ittetsu Takemura, and electronic keyboard work by Australian Alister Spence. The “collaborative” adjective comes from the fact that each of the three pieces on the album has a different composer.

The opening track, “Because of the Sun,” is by Spence and, as might be guessed, involves a generous share of his virtuoso keyboard playing. This is followed by Tamura’s “Nat 4,” which reflects on the long history (which reaches back at least as far as Louis Armstrong) of trumpet solos that soar into the stratosphere while firmly establishing a commitment to the avant-garde that is very much in the immediate present. The album then concludes with Fujii’s “Luna Lionfish,” composed in three uninterrupted parts, which extend over a duration that exceeds half an hour. The fact that the album itself is being called a “live” recording suggests that all three of these pieces were performed and captured in a single take; and it is easy to listen to the album as a three-part suite whose final movement is, itself, in three parts. Those comfortable with the longer symphonic efforts of Gustav Mahler should have no trouble buying into this listening strategy, and those listening attentively will be just as rewarded as when they engage their skills during a concert performance of a Mahler symphony.

As might be guessed, Triad is a trio album. Fujii is joined by Gianni Mimmo on soprano saxophone and Joe Fonda, who divides his efforts between flute and bass. This is the album that comes closest to an explicit acknowledgement of the entire project. Almost all of the CD is occupied by the second track, an improvisation lasting slightly more than 40 minutes entitled “Birthday Girl.”

If my familiarity with Fujii’s work were more extensive and my memory was more acute, I might be able to make a case for this piece having retrospective qualities; but my listening skills are not quite good enough to support my going out on that limb. Instead, I can draw upon my own rich past of listening to extended improvisations by jazz giants such as John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor (particularly the latter). Indeed, when I recently read Adam Shatz’ extended obituary for Taylor, which was posted on the NYR Daily Web site of The New York Review of Books, I was as impressed with his “laundry list” of “three or four generations of musicians” to have been inspired by Taylor as I was dismayed to see that Fujii had not made it onto that list.

The conditions under which Triad was recorded again deserve to be acknowledged. While Fujii had released an album with Fonda, entitled simply Duet, in October of 2016, the first time that Mimmo played with these two musicians was the night before the recording was made. This prompts two key observations. The first is that there is never any sign that Mimmo is holding back as the “junior member” of this partnership. The second is that the improvisatory techniques that unfold over the entire album, not just in “Birthday Girl,” suggests a strong bond of communication among all three of the players. If that communication was a result of little more that knowing just how to respond to attentive listening, that speaks volumes about both the technique and the inventive capacity of all three of the players.

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