[11 November 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Silly me, I thought Satoko Fujii and Natsuki Tamura were all done for 2013. The Japanese husband and wife team of avant-garde jazz usually release a smattering of albums at one time in any given calendar year. So when the ma-do quintet and Fujii’s New Trio dropped simultaneous albums back in May, I thought that we had heard the last of them until 2014. Now, we are graced with three more! Not only do Fujii and Tamura each have new solo albums, Gen Himmel and Dragon Nat, respectively, but their incredible group KAZE is back for a second round. Their 2011 debut Rafale was more than just promising. Tremendous, even, so their sophomore album Tornado is probably a good place to start our dive into this threefer.
KAZE is led by no one – at least that appears to be the case. Christian Pruvost and Tamura share trumpet parts, Fujii is on the piano and Peter Orins holds the whole thing together bafflingly well on the drums. All members, with the exception of Pruvost, write material for Tornado, an aptly named album if there ever was one. The title selection is the third track out of a total of five, nestled right in the middle of the album. The first two tracks prepare you for the storm while the last two remind you “well, you’ll never experience anything quite like that again, will you?” It’s hard to tell if KAZE threw out the rules of composed/improvised music or just rewrote them, but their sound and energy remain highly original no matter what way you look at them. Avant-garde noise is sometimes just noise, but KAZE’s sound and methods are beyond that. It’s the sound of a deadly vine, choking or caressing its subject, passing through fury and tranquility with equal capability. It’s surprising that the two songs that represent the latter trait are written by the drummer; “Mecanique” and “Imokidesu”.
The title of Fujii’s solo album translates to “toward heaven”, which is a collection of songs dedicated to many of her recently-departed friends. Anyone who has followed Satoko Fujii this far into her career is already aware that she does far more than just sit on her bench and press down on the keys, especially on her solo albums. She also like to get up, lean into the open grand, and play the piano in any way that moves her. Preparing the inside with percussion, scraping the bronze-wound strings – this Fujii brand of ambiance/cacophony/maelstrom is what greets you on the title track. The prepared piano of “Take Right” is reminiscent of many a John Cage sonata also, hampering the strings in the lower-mid and upper registers as Fujii’s fingers search for strange ways to say goodbye to old friends. Gen Himmel isn’t really jazz and it’s not an easy listen. Its inability to commit to any conventional form of jazz or classical make it difficult to pin down if you really are hung up on classifications and genres. And although it deals with death, Gen Himmel is not a depressing album, but a reflective one – in the way that death makes you ponder rather than just cry.
Natsuki Tamura has the toughest assignment – a solo trumpet album. Dragon Nat is a collection of songs he wrote for his chamber group Gato Libre, only this time there is quite a bit of extra room for him to take the music wherever he feels like taking it. This is detectable from the two tracks on Dragon Nat that were featured on Gato Libre’s Forever album last year. Gato Libre, already an adventuresome project that used just guitar, trumpet, accordion and bass, still treated Tamura’s songs in a natural manner, i.e. everyone has a part and everyone follows each other accordingly. But when songs like “Forever” and “World” get translated to a Natsuki Tamura solo album, they’re treated like extended solos. Rubato is not only expected, it’s almost a requirement here. Unsurprisingly, Dragon Nat is a more difficult listen than Gen Himmel. And just like his wife and her instrument, Tamura is able to produce sounds on his trumpet in more ways than one. His lips go loose on the title track, and only the most talented of trumpet virtuosos can tell me what’s going on with his throat and tongue. A box of percussion toys helps Tamura push through the 12-minute “Dialogue”.
Satoko Fujii and Natsuki Tamura have had, once again, a very good year. Between the two great albums by New Trio and KAZE, the one masterpiece by ma-do and two creatively subversive solo albums, I almost feel bad for this couple. Here they are sacrificing so much of their time together to give us more and more great music. If I were them, I’d start a Kickstarter campaign ... to go on vacation.