Thursday, August 30, 2018

Fujii’s August Birthday Release with Mahobin

courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz Communications

This month Satoko Fujii’s “Kanreki Cycle” release plan continued with her second quartet album. “Kanreki” is the Japanese noun that acknowledges the 60th birthday as a special occasion. Because Fujii will celebrate that birthday on October 9, she has been honoring the occasion by releasing a new album for every month of this calendar year. The cycle began, appropriately enough, with a solo album; but this was followed in February by a performance of the cooperative quartet Kaze, a half-Japanese half-French combo with Fujii as pianist and her husband Natsuki Tamura on trumpet. has yet to acknowledge the existence of this project; so the best way to keep up (or catch up) with the releases is through the CD Store Web page on the Web site for Libra Records.

The quartet on this album is called “Mahobin,” which is the word the Japanese use for a thermos bottle. (Thermos bottles are the only items that Amazon will provide when searching on this word, even when the search is restricted to recordings!) The Japanese noun can also be translated as “magic bottle.”

The quartet is distinguished by the presence of Ikue Mori, who provides real-time electronic synthesis through software on her laptop. Fujii is again playing alongside her husband Tamura, and the quartet is completed by Danish saxophonist Lotte Anker. The title of the album is Live at Big Apple in Kobe, and it captures a set consisting entirely of free improvisation work that was recorded this past February 23.

Most of the album is devoted to a single uninterrupted free improvisation given the title “Rainbow Elephant.” Over the course of almost three-quarters of an hour, the group serves up a continuous weave of sound in which extended solos emerge as patterns defined by a weft that winds its way through the warp of ensemble sonorities. The integrity of that warp owes much to Mori’s synthesis, which may be one of the best examples of the continuo concept in the 21st century, on the one hand establishing an overall framework while, on the other hand, using improvisation to elaborate the functionality of that framework.

What is particularly striking is that, even when the solo work ventures onto the wild side (Anker conveys an understanding of John Coltrane without ever suggesting that she is channeling him), the overall rhetoric of the set is one of intimacy. The idea of a continuo is not just a convenient metaphor. In many ways “Rainbow Elephant” reflects back on the pre-Baroque spirit of instrumentalists taking the earliest steps in playing as an ensemble of voices that are both independent and members of a group. The only substantive difference in spirit comes from the techniques through which “Rainbow Elephant” fills a significantly extended period of time.

Indeed, one gets the feeling that “Rainbow Elephant” may have been intended to define the entire set. However, after its completion the quartet seems to have felt the need for an “encore selection.” This resulted in “Yellow Sky,” which is only about seven minutes long. As one becomes familiar with this album, one will recognize that both tracks begin with Mori establishing a similar context. Within that context the intimacy of “Rainbow Element” reemerges, perhaps with a bit more multi-voice activity, suggesting a slightly more complex approach to the overall weaving. Ultimately, “Yellow Sky” is neither encore nor afterthought. Rather, the four musicians take their respective approaches to free improvisation in new directions, endowing the piece with just as much creativity in a more compact temporal framework.

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