Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York / Min-Yoh / Kaze: ETO / Watershed / Rafale

Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York

Last year I got the chance to review two new albums made by Japanese pianist extraordinaire Satoko Fujii and her husband trumpeter Satsuki Tamura, and to be honest, I had a hard time deciding how to grade them. The album Desert Ship by her quartet ma-do was a format probably closer to my personal taste. However, the music of Zakopane, the album made by her enormous Orchestra Tokyo, more than made up for my lack of interest in large jazz ensembles. All in all, they evened out in quality, high quality. Now Fujii and Tamura have unleashed three albums upon us, spanning wider options than before. So now I’m back where I was, attempting to fairly grade three mammoth works from a maverick wife-and-husband team who couldn’t take the easy route even if they tried. Where to begin?

Let’s begin with the orchestra, moving from Tokyo to New York. The album ETO features fifteen musicians, mostly saxes, trumpets and trombones. Fourteen of the seventeen tracks are dedicated to the “Eto Suite”, which Fujii composed for her husband’s 60th birthday. Turning 60 is a big deal in Japan, being a multiple of 12, the number of animals in the Chinese zodiac (which the Japanese like to use). Bookended with an overture and an epilogue, Fujii wrote 12 miniatures for each animal and assigned them each a specific soloist from the orchestra. She remains faithful to the personality of each animal, though I imagine it’s difficult to musically capture the spirit of an ox, a ram or a boar. The rat movement is more obvious since it sounds like a scurrying rodent (ah, kill it! Sorry, the rat – not Chris Speed). The dragon piece definitely conveys fiery breath, the monkey sounds curious and silly, and the rooster certainly has a wake-up call quality to it. Different languages have different ways of mimicking a rooster’s call, but Herb Robertson’s trumpet reminds us that in all cultures, they’re just noisy.

In addition to the suite, ETO has three other lengthy pieces. “The North Wind and the Sun” shifts rapidly between soft and loud, boiling and swinging, breezy rhythms and anything but. “Pressure Cooker” and “Stroll” take the big band sound even further; denser, messier, louder, more Mingus like. And this, for me, is what raises the bar about Satoko Fujii’s use of the big band — the lack of uniformity and willingness to make the band sound as big as it really is.

Now, we move on to folk music. Not folk music in the sense we’re accustomed to where a serious musician gives voice to hard-working rural underdogs but folk music in the sense that a serious musician writes and performs a song through simplicity. It’s a little risky to lump “folk” with “simplicity” since the latter word is the kinder cousin to “simplistic.” And as you might guess, Satoko Fujii’s “folk” originals can’t help but traverse a rocky road. Armed with Curtis Hasselbring on trombone (who also appears on ETO), Andrea Parkins on accordion and Tamura on trumpet again, Fujii’s five originals bury any notion of simplicity in pounding pianos, static-like horn noises, and song forms stretched as wide as a flight from Japan to New York that resolve themselves with all the rush of jet lag. The Min-Yoh Ensemble, named after the Japanese word for “folk music,” tackles three traditional Japanese folk tunes as well. I’m suspecting that, apart from the vocalizations, these songs are radically deconstructed to the point where you would have no reason to think they weren’t hers. Even though the album Watershed is supposed to celebrate the power of simplicity, it’s probably the least accessible of the three here.

Lastly, and I will stress the point that this is certainly not least, is the album Rafale by Fujii’s new collective Kaze. Fujii was so impressed by the tunes and performance of drummer Peter Orins’ ensemble that she just had to collaborate with him. Orins pointed Fujii and Tamura’s attentions to trumpeter Christian Pruvost, and Kaze made their debut performance in Krakow, Poland last year. Rafale is an in concert performance, but there is a curious lack of audience noise. Nevertheless, of the three new releases from Satoko Fujii and Natsuki Tamura, this is the one that screams “holy shit.” Peter Orins and Pruvost create an explosive sound with the couple that’s also impressive in its movement. The way the softs and louds relay with one another, a theme that Fujii appears to be fond of, could be more exciting than it is intellectual. Fujii herself only wrote two of the six pieces here, which is something that she doesn’t allow herself to do that often (one of them, “The Thaw,” actually appears on Watershed as well). But she was so taken by Orins’ craft that she was only too happy to learn his stuff. In the liner notes she says “I hope to keep this project going and see how it grows in the future.”

I second that. It’s tough to sell over two-and-a-half hours’ worth of new music from an avant-garde pianist as essential, but Rafale itself can’t come more recommended. The others are delightful.

RATING 8 / 10