Even since I started reviewing music, I’ve been doing my best to keep up with the progress of Satoko Fujii and Natsuki Tamura, Japan’s fearless wife-and-husband team in avant-garde jazz. It isn’t unusual for them to release a minimum of two albums each year, all of which are recorded under a variety of musical contexts and ensemble names. Naturally, I’ve lost track of their output.
Bob Rusch of Cadence has anointed Fujii as “[T]he Ellington of free jazz.” The pianist/composer and her trumpeter husband know that you don’t earn a reputation like that by sitting around at home and waiting for success to knock on your door. They’ve kept busy, and Fujii’s Orchestra Tokyo album Peace is just another link in a very long, very strong, and very unusual chain of works.
In case you need a refresher, Satoko Fujii has assembled, composed for, and conducts for various orchestras around the world. She has one in Berlin, one in New York, the Tokyo one in question, and perhaps some more that I’m not even aware of. In addition to the 15-member orchestra, Peace features two musicians from Fujii’s KAZE ensemble, drummer Peter Orins and trumpeter Christian Provost. Neither side seems to drag down nor enhance the other. All of the music and the musicians performing it are all subjected to Fujii’s baton and composition pen. Both are mighty. Although Fujii doesn’t play on this release, she still considers the orchestra to be her main instrument, nonetheless.
The opening composition “2014” is dedicated to guitarist Kelly Churko. At 32 minutes and 45 seconds, it takes up more than half the album’s running time. According to Satoko Fujii, a crazy number dominating an album named Peace was meant to capture Churko’s paradoxical personality. While the Canadian musician was a peaceful soul, he also had a taste for heavy metal. Things don’t really turn “metal”, but this is one heavy half-hour driven by naked horn breathing and enormous building blocks of atonal chords. The ten-minute title track enjoys a unique DNA of ramshackle percussion and a five-person saxophone section that wails its way into a form of texture.
If it’s peace that you’re looking for, you can find it in the 11-minute ode to a cat, “Jasper”, which has been recorded by Fujii and Tamura before. There’s something almost ambient and/or cinematic about the track — until the higher wind instruments transform it into the oddest dirge you may ever hear on a big band album. The rhythm behind the final track “Beguine Nummer Eins” is the closest that Peace ever comes to having a groove. While the three prior tracks sprawl and explore, this one locks into a toe-tapping pattern, eventually giving way to cacophony within only (!) six minutes.
At this point in Satoko Fujii’s career, she’s not making sub-par musical choices. All of her albums come in varying degrees of Very Good or Excellent. Peace is another magnificent slab of noisy texture designed to tease the senses. In this sub-genre of music, melody alone is the easy way out. A Fujii Orchestra is for those who want their fabric so thick that it nearly suffocates them. You guys know who you are.