Photo: Bryan Murray / Courtesy of Libra Records

Satoko Fujii’s Orchestra Berlin Plunges Deep on ‘Ninety-Nine Years’

As Japanese composer Satoko Fujii's 60th year rolls along, she finds yet another way to challenge her listeners with Ninety-Nine Years.

Ninety-Nine Years
Satoko Fujii Orchestra Berlin
23 March 2018

When Satoko Fujii forms an orchestra, it’s not for playing symphonies, and it certainly isn’t for playing big band swing.

The shockingly prolific Japanese pianist is entangled in an everlasting pursuit to capture the sounds in her head, jot them down on paper, and record them for the public. That has led her to form many ensembles over the years with her husband Natsuki Tamura, constantly playing with ensemble size and instrument combinations. All of these projects have come to a head for 2018 as Fujii celebrates her 60th birthday by promising one album per month. Fujii has recorded with this particular Berlin ensemble only once before, but that was enough to spurn her into writing more for them. Ninety-Nine Years is the result, and it’s just as bold and out-there as anything else that Fujii has written and recorded. There are, after all, ten musicians under her baton and all of them are encouraged to wander outside their comfort zones.

Ninety-Nine Years features the same lineup that Gebhard Ullmann helped assemble for Ichigo Ichi three years prior: Matthias Schubert and Ullmann on tenor sax, Paulina Owczarek on baritone sax, Richard Koch, Lina Allemano, and Tamura on trumpet, Matthias Müller on trombone, Jan Roder on bass, and Michael Griener and Peter Orins on drums. There may be only five songs, but each one is a crazy journey unto itself (all but one exceed ten minutes in length). Even the way they begin and end is dangerously unique.

Opener “Unexpected Incident”, commemorating the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, starts with two minutes of Griener and Orins making a racket and ends with Ullman soloing furiously all by himself. The title track, written in honor of Tamura’s mother, begins with a lengthy, freewheeling solo from Roder. Along the way, percussion noises and saxes puncture the air to varying degrees. It isn’t until ten minutes into the piece that the entire orchestra decides to meet up all at once. The large chorded ending would have made for a great climax for the album as a whole, but if you know Fujii, she’s got her own vision to stick to.

Probably the closest thing to big band swing that Fujii has written for this CD is “Oops!”, a word that Tamura kept using during rehearsals. The horn pattern that kicks it off sounds a bit like Duke Ellington gradually losing his mind. After that theme is established, it’s either Schubert or Ullmann honking like a dying goose while Griener and Orins bring to life a tenuous slow groove. And this recording wouldn’t be a Fujii/Tamura project if it didn’t have at least one moment where Tamura is moaning and groaning through his horn like a long-suffering race horse. That comes on “Follow the Idea”, the last and shortest song on Ninety-Nine Years. Here, Fujii is somehow able to pack an album’s worth of tricks, ideas, and noises in six minutes time. After hearing the entire thing, a title like “Follow the Idea” suddenly doesn’t seem so high and mighty.

This is only the second CD I’ve heard from Fujii’s proposed marathon. If this and Atody Man are of any indication of what’s to come, then Satoko Fujii’s 2018 music should be ample enough for us to digest over the next few decades. But who are we kidding? By New Year’s Day, 2019, she’ll be ready to do it all over again.

RATING 8 / 10