Thursday, July 26, 2018

A New Trio on Satoko Fujii’s June Release

 courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz Communications

The time I put into my project based on the complete operas by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky took me away from keeping up with Japanese jazz pianist Satoko Fujii and her plan to celebrate her forthcoming 60th birthday by releasing a new album for every month of this calendar year. Now that I am “back on track,” I have had an opportunity to listen to 1538, her album for the month of June. As seems to have been consistently the case over the course of this project, has not been creating pages for these recordings. So, once again, I find myself directing readers to the CD Store Web page on the Web site for Libra Records, which happens to be the label on which 1538 was released.

1538 is the debut for a new trio that Fujii formed, which she has decided to call This Is It! (The exclamation point is part of the name.) The members will be familiar to those who have been following Fujii’s work. The trumpeter is her husband, Natsuki Tamura; and the percussionist is Takashi Itani, whom listeners may recall from when I wrote about her Live at Jazz Room Cortez album in November of last year. The advance material for 1538 quoted Fujii on how the trio got its name:
I always like to have smaller units that can play my compositions. I have led small groups like Satoko Fujii Quartet, Satoko Fujii Trio, ma-do, and others since the beginning of my career. Right now, this trio is the one I really like to work with, so I just named it This Is It!
I sympathize with her logic. When I helped Twyla Tharp manage a performance at the Worcester Art Museum in Worcester, Massachusetts, we had so much trouble coming up with a title for the event that we eventually settled on “Let’s Not Call It.”

Readers may recall that I tend to be cautious about using the noun “jazz” when writing about Fujii’s music. Given how flexible making music has become regarding the noun “composition,” I feel it necessary to document Fujii’s own take on that flexibility:
When I sit at the piano, I always compose for 15 minutes before I begin to practice. After doing this for more than 10 years, I have 12 books of written compositions. The short pieces in these books can help me to make long pieces. I often turn to my diary books when I start to compose something.
This strikes me as a disciplined approach to spontaneity, even if many would take “disciplined spontaneity” to be an oxymoron. As I see it, Fujii uses those books to document “seeds;” and those seeds then “grow” through processes that involve both interpretation and improvisation. If there is no adequate category label for those processes, then we should not waste time on finding one when it is more important to pay attention to the results.

The compositions on 1538 are probably more likely to strike the attentive listener as chamber music that is jazz by other means, rather than jazz that is chamber music by other means. One cannot always tell for sure when Fujii and her colleagues are working directly from her notebooks and when they are moving from notation into improvisation while hiding their tracks in the process. From a personal point of view, what interests me the most about 1538 is the extent to which it prioritizes sonorities over more traditional constructs, such as themes or motifs. If I did not know any better, I would speculate that Fujii spent some time in Paris at IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique, which translates as “institute for research and coordination in acoustics and music”), possibly encountering the composer Kaija Saariaho while she was there. However, her Wikipedia page makes no mention of such a visit (or any visit to Europe, for that matter), leading me to assume that she developed her own approaches to working with sonority as a fundamental ingredient without much (if any) exposure to European influences.

Whatever her background knowledge may be, her results can be downright uncanny. My initial reaction to the final track on 1538, “Yozora,” was that the opening sounds were electronic. However, there is no mention of any use of electronic gear on this album. Unless presented with evidence to the contrary, I am willing to accept that all of the sounds are acoustic and just happen to have been very imaginatively concocted and possibly enhanced through amplification.

Some might say that the tracks on this album defy description. From a more optimistic point of view, I would say that the tracks encourage each individual listener to seek out his/her own description. (I have now listened to a good deal of Fujii’s work, including a visit she made here in San Francisco to the Center for New Music; and the last thing I would want to do is assert any description I formulate as authoritarian!) Granted, not all listeners necessarily want to play this game. They would prefer some “latter-day Leonard Bernstein” to explain everything before they actually do the listening, rather like Gary Larson’s The Far Side cartoon of a herd of sheep desperately searching for a sheepdog.

Nevertheless, there is something about the jamming that takes place on this album that has enough reverberations of familiarity to encourage the listener to pursue his/her own path to sensemaking. I, for one, believe that more performances should be this way and that more recordings should capture such performances. Having established where I stand, I have no trouble inviting readers to stand with me in finding their own listening experiences in what has been captured on the tracks of 1538.

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