The Bad Plus may get all of the (admitedly deserved) attention, but the Japanese husband and wife team of Satoko Fujii and Natsuki Tamura are equally capable of bulldozing over the senses and expectations of the modern jazz audience — maybe even moreso. Fujii and Tamura have been releasing music at a bewildering pace lately (the press agency estimates over 70 albums in less than 20 years), which is made all the more impressive when you factor in the consistently out-there risk taking and the consistently high quality that each of these releases carries. As always, 2015 is shaping up to be a fruitful year for Fujii and Tamura as they plan to unleash three new albums in three different guises, with two dropping on the same day.
The two albums in question are Ichigo Ichi and Yamiyo Ni Karasu, the debut album released by Fujii’s Berlin orchestra and the sophomore release by Fujii’s Tobira quartet, respectively. If you want to take a broad view of the situation, weighing the two albums is like comparing your two favorite pieces of produce : both excel, but in different departments. Orchestra Berlin is a big, abstract swell of an ensemble with insane drumming to match. Tobira is a classic example of modern chamber jazz where experimentation and resonant melodies are applied with equal force. Once I thought I found Ichigo Ichi more interesting. Then Yamiyo Ni Karasu blindsided me away from it. I suppose it depends on where the listener finds themselves before pressing play.
If you have followed Satoko Fujii’s career thus far, you know that she likes to write for and play with various “orchestras” around the world. With each one named after the city in which they are assembled, these ensembles are closer to big bands than anything else, though their sounds are rarely tied to anything from the big band era. Orchestra Berlin is 12 strong with some very notable names in the roster like saxohponist Gebhard Ullmann and drummer Peter Orins. A bulk of their debut CD is a very complicated suite broken into four parts. “Ichigo Ichie 1” gets a strange start with the drum solo from hell courtesy of Orins and Michael Griener. Then the ensemble enters with wide-ranging chords paced at intervals that would kill lesser musicians. Even Tamura himself admitted in the liner notes that many of the brass players feared swollen lips in the near future. It’s easy to see why because just within the first movement, the music is already bursting sky-high. The orchestra has to preserve their energies for the rest of Fujii’s original suite as well as the 14-minute closer “ABCD”, which is no less brazen…or confounding.
When is comes to Yamiyo Ni Karasu, which translates to “the crow in the dark night”, we get to hear Tobira truly come into their own. Initially billed as Satoko Fujii’s New Trio with Tamura lending an ocaisonal hand, their debut album was pretty good. With Tamura fully on board, they are even better. In fact, he starts Yamiyo Ni Karasu all by himself with a good sixty seconds of trumpet flatulence before drummer Takashi Itani begins to rattle his sticks (Fujii admits that she appreciates her husband’s musical sense of humor, his ying to her rather serious-minded yang). Before long the quartet has lunged into Bad Plus territory where Fujii’s minor-key piano figures, drunk on octaves with easy up-and-down motion, pack enough of a punch alongside Itani and bassist Todd Nicholson to make Ethan Iverson and company feel a tad bit nervous. As with Ichigo Ichi, the first 13 minutes of Yamiyo Ni Karasu are stuffed with enough highs and lows to last an entire album — which it does.
And just like this, Satoko Fujii uses two gutsy albums to secure at least one spot for jazz’s 2015 highlight reel. Fujii and Tamura continue to perform to a very limited niche audience, but they are just too damn good at what they do to cast them off as some esoteric act only to be consumed by music students. They create jazz music, distilled down to the most artistic elements, and present it in a way that can’t be called inaccessible. You have to work to get it, but it’s very much worth the effort as it always has been.