Satoko Fujii and Natsuki Tamura turn in two very fine albums this year. But something, beyond the quality of the music, is a little off.
Satoko Fujii and Natsuki Tamura will bankrupt their fans yet. Muku and Forever are the sixth and seventh releases helmed by the Japanese avant-jazz husband and wife team since 2010, all of which are attributed to different ensembles. And to top that off, there's almost no overlap in material. Being such prolific composers and recording artists, not to mention constant live performers, you really have to wonder if they ever take a break to catch a movie now and then. Muku is the duet album between the two, and Satoko Fujii has this to say in the liner notes: "This is our fifth duo CD. Considering our many years of collaboration, that's a rather slow pace of release." C'mon sister, no one is complaining.
Being a pianist, Fujii's style of composing and improvising allows her to use every note of every scale and slams down any chord that her ten fingers allow. And for the past few years, this is what Fujii/Tamura fans have been accustomed to hearing. For 2012 though, the material is all Tamura's. His writing is fashioned to his instrument of choice, the trumpet, and this makes quite a difference. His melodies are more straightforward and his runs more on the linear side, though he can't help but make those tight, high squeaks in the throes of letting a piece breathe. The content of the duet album Muku is a reflection of the material under the name Gato Libre, a project that started as just Fujii and Tamura then bloomed into a quartet with guitar and bass. Muku is the result of Tamura going through Gato Libre's past catalog and cherry-picking particular pieces, adapting them to the trumpet and piano setting. Forever is the final album made by Gato Libre due to the untimely death of bassist Norikatsu Koreyasu. Given that the inspirational source of the two albums is the same, the two ended up being quite different.
Muku is a vulnerable album that puts the screws to label makers. The pensive interplay between Fujii and Tamura demonstrates that their current state of mind is about as jazzy as John Zorn's current state of mind. In other words, not very. Fujii's piano parts to the title track actually fakes me out into thinking she's about to play Beethoven's "Pathétique" sonata. By the next track it's like a Schoenberg homage in here. And with the gentle waltz of "Patrol" and the galvanized racket of "In Paris, In February", all bets are off.
Forever is, musically speaking, a richer album. But it also sounds poorer. The lineup of Fujii on accordion, Tamura on trumpet, Koreyasu on bass and Kazuhiko Tsumura on guitar is an intriguing and capable one, but everyone sounds too far back from their respective mics. Tsumura's guitar is particularly obscured by an emphasis on higher frequencies and the sound of Tamura's trumpet just highlights the shortcomings of such an acoustically-challenged room. This is all too bad because Gato Libre are so interesting and intricate in what they do that their sound is probably harder to define than that of what you hear on Muku. Fujii's accordian is so thick that it almost makes you forget that Koreyasu's thoughtful bass provides such a strong undertow, whether he was plucking it or bowing it. Tamura's liner notes describe the late bassist as a delightful and difficult eccentric whose idiosyncrasies likely informed his approach to the instrument.
When you take stock of all 15 songs, you'll find that Satoko Fujii/Natsuki Tamura light continues to shine in 2012. But be aware that it doesn't burn as brightly as it did in 2010 and 2011. Perhaps it's the passing of a friend or maybe a relentless pace of recording, but this couple are sounding less confident now than in their recent past. Given their collective histories, this will prove to be the exception rather than the rule. I'll bet money on it.