It somewhat bums me out to write this review because, of the two albums being discussed, one of them is the last album Satoko Fujii’s ma-do quartet will ever release. One of my earliest assignments for this website was a twofer review of Fujii’s 2010 albums. The ma-do album Desert Ship was awesome. In truth, both albums were great, but Desert Ship was just more my style. It was quartet jazz (re: chamber) that did not stick to stiff charts. Fujii’s compositions were already unusual enough, but the band had a frightening way of inhaling and exhaling the music. It was all very weird and challenging, yet nothing was artistically out of place. But the unexpected death of bassist Norikatsu Koreyasu means that two of Satoko Fujii’s projects — Gato Libre and ma-do — are now buried in the ground for good. Realizing that his sound pretty much made these bands what they are, Fujii doesn’t feel like replacing him.
But when one door slams shut, a window often opens. These two albums from Fujii represent her transition from the abandoned door to the fresh air blowing through the new open window. This time, Fujii returns to the piano trio format that put her on the international jazz map all those years ago by forming the New Trio with Todd Nicholson and Takashi Itani. A final album from ma-do is much better than none at all, and its pairing with New Trio’s Spring Storm secures a better year overall for Fujii and her husband Natsuki Tamura than last year.
What makes ma-do’s final album Time Stands Still so sad is the notion that the title represents. Fujii admits that she wanted ma-do to go on and on, to be playing with Koreyasu forever. There’s no dodging the issue when you read the song titles: “Time Flies”, “Set the Clock Back”, “Broken Time” and, of course, “Time Stands Still”. Judging from Koreyasu’s contributions to the album, it’s easy to see why Fujii had such misty-eyed wishes. In the liner notes for Gato Libre’s final album, Tamura painted a conflicted picture of Norikatsu Koreyasu. On the one hand, his personality was unpredictable and it was hard to just plan breakfast with the guy. On the other hand, he had an incredible command over his instrument and never failed to conjure his magic in a live setting. On Time Stands Still, he bows, scrapes, squawks, and gives a series of good old-fashioned Valley of the Underdog plucks on his bass, tricking the listener into thinking that a fifth member of the band must have a table of miscellaneous junk lying around. As far as Fujii’s compositions go, it’s frustrating to witness how ma-do was transcending itself at this point. If Desert Ship was excellent, there’s something about Time Stands Still that is otherworldly. Natsuki Tamura still bends the sound of his trumpet to his will, never for show and always for the music. And the greatest thing I can say about drummer Akira Horikoshi is that his solo on “Broken Time” makes it sound just like that.
For Spring Storm, the music is obviously more piano-centered than on Time Stands Still. Fujii is not new to the piano trio format. But considering just how far out she’s been branching in format in recent years, it’s easy to forget that she was once treading down the trio path. And Satoko Fujii being Satoko Fujii, she can’t do the straight-up Bill Evans thing anymore than Tim Berne can cover Kenny G. This was made clear in no uncertain terms when I borrowed Toward, to West from my local library, a trio album she did with Jim Black and Mark Dresser sometime around 2000. And though there’s nothing quite as ambitious as the 30-minute title track from that release to be found on Spring Storm, it still comes with its own set of challenges. Bassist Todd Nicholson and drummer Takashi Itani, in addition to being serious jazz musicians, are also into punk and metal. And rather than tame the sense of rage that may come along with such musical tastes, Fujii incorporates it into the New Trio sound. Nicholson and Takshi are sometimes given blank checks to go nuts, as the ten-minute title track demonstrates. They exercise restraint, however. Not everything has to get punked in the groin, like on “Convection”, a teasing piece that makes you think it’s deep and lyric one moment, then has you doing mental math in an effort to tap your foot to it.
Time Stands Still is bittersweet to hear. On the one hand, it’s tremendous. On the other hand, there will be no more like it. And given where the band was headed, it’s a shame that we will never know what ma-do’s follow-up would have sounded like. Spring Storm is not as transcendent or otherworldly, but it goes without saying that ma-do’s final album is a tough act to follow. Satoko Fujii’s New Trio has the edge and the confidence to become bigger than itself, especially if Fujii keeps writing the way that she currently is. So here’s to two of 2013’s best releases — one a sad farewell, the other an ambitious hello.