Satoko Fujii’s Marathon Year Heats Up

Japanese jazz composer/pianist Satoko Fujii continues to surpass her own standards as she celebrates her 60th birthday.

Satoko Fujii / Joe Fonda / Gianni Mimmo
Long Song
25 May 2018
Satoko Fujii / This Is It!
22 June 2018

If you have followed Satoko Fujii’s career for any length of time, you might be wondering just how and from where she gets so many of her compositional ideas. It turns out, the answer is simple: routine. Before each rehearsal session, the Japanese pianist devotes a good 15 minutes to jotting down a few musical ideas. All of these little ideas have accumulated over the years, providing Fujii with numerous notebooks of material from which she can select her latest album. Suddenly, her plan to release one album per month in 2018 to commemorate her 60th birthday doesn’t seem like such a crazy idea. Triad, her trio album with bassist/flutist Joe Fonda and soprano saxophonist Gianni Mimmo and her trio album 1538 with husband/trumpeter Natsuki Tamura and drummer Takashi Itani mark the months of May and June, respectively. And so far, 2018 is shaping up like any other year in Satoko Fujii’s career: Lots of releases and none of them bad.

The Triad album is a bit of an outlier for the Fujii canon since it is not released on her Libra label. It’s also a complete jam cooperative. All five songs are attributed to all three instrumentalists. And while Fujii is by no means new to the art of the long song, Triad has one ridiculously long track named “Birthday Girl” that clocks in at 42 minutes and 12 seconds. That’s 75% of the album — an album unto itself. The other four songs give you only 14 minutes of music, so your opinion of Triad will most likely be derived from your opinion of “Birthday Girl”.

As one might expect, the trio do not use 40 minutes of your time to drive a singular idea into the ground. They use it to explore the louds and softs of their instruments, the harmony and discord of their chemistry, and to fluctuate the tempos that sometimes barely exist. During tracks like “Birthday Girl” and the opening track “Available Gravity”, Satoko Fujii demonstrates a remarkable amount of restraint by staying completely silent during certain passages. Fonda gives his instrument a subtle shading through bowing while Gianni Mimmo uses his circular breathing abilities to make either beautiful melodies or shrieking noises. Fujii, who has the ability to make a piano roar, rarely takes the opportunity to do so.

This Is It! is a different story. With this trio, a very different trio from the one featured Triad, Satoko Fujii pulls out every noise trick she can. She opens the lid, reaches in, scrapes strings, pounds bass notes into submission, and lets Natsuki Tamura wake the neighbors with his usual guttural howls. Takashi Itani sounds like one of those drummers who can most likely play along with anybody anywhere. His versatility combined with Fujii and Tamura’s long-running chemistry prompted her to declaratively name the trio This Is It!

Fujii composed all six pieces on 1538 herself. Named after the degrees in Celsius at which iron begins to melt, it’s not hard to interpret the title track as such with Fujii’s rising chromatics creating tension with a touch-and-go performance by Itani. All but one song exceeds eight minutes in length, giving This Is It! plenty of opportunities to test the limits of what some musicians would consider to be a limited ensemble. Some of these opportunities are in turn playful (“Prime Number”), serious (“Riding on the Clouds”), technical (“Climb the Rapids”), and downright noisy (“Yozora”).

With just 11 tracks and two different trios, Satoko Fujii can demonstrate multiple sides of her compositional and improvisational flair. Keep in mind, that’s just two releases out of 12 this year. More hidden dimensions surely await.

RATING 8 / 10