The Expansive Sonic Universe of Satoko Fujii
Three Late 2020 Albums for the Inquisitive Ear.
by Bob Pomeroy
No matter how well anyone tries to keep up with what’s going on in the music world, it’s impossible to be up on everything. When the opportunity came up to review three new releases from Japanese pianist and composer, Satoko Fujii, I jumped at it even through I really didn’t know anything about her. When I started my background research so I could put the new records in some kind of context, I felt gob smacked. I felt like the first human wandering across the Southern deserts of what is now the United States to set eyes on the Grand Canyon. Satoko Fujii is incredibly prolific with a limitless imagination. Am I really capable of doing justice to this artist?
Pushing my ever-present imposter syndrome aside, I set about learning at least the cliff notes version of Fujii’s career. Satoko began playing piano at the age of 4. She studied classical music until age 20, when she became immersed in jazz. She studied jazz and the Berkley School of Music and later at the New England Conservatory where Paul Bley encouraged her to develop her own voice. Since the release of her initial recording Something About Water in 1996, Fujii has released over 100 CD’s as a leader or co-leader. Her works range from solo works and small ensembles to big bands and orchestras. Satoko collaborates with musicians around the world with ensembles based in Tokyo, New York, and Berlin.
The three CD’s that Satoko Fujii released at the end of 2020 are all for small groups. Mantel is a trio recording with trumpeter (and husband) Natsuki Tamura and drummer Ramon Lopez. Pentas is a collection of duo recordings with Tamura and Prickly Pear Cactus is collaboration with laptop composer, Ikue Mori (Natsuki Tamura joins them on some tracks).
Mantel (Not Too Records).
Mantel is a good entry point. The trio format keeps the music somewhat grounded in the jazz tradition. The recording took place at then conclusion of their 2019 Japanese tour. Each player brought three newly composed works to the session. “Nine Steps to the Ground” opens with the trio jousting with Tamura’s melodic trumpet playing against Fujii’s spikey keyboard flourishes. At the other end of the trio’s sonic pallet is the languid and reflective, “Autumn Sky.” The delicate parts making me imagine laying under a tree, watching clouds floating past in the firmament.
Pentas (Not Too Records).
Satoko and Natsuki met with fans Eric and Chris Stern after the New York debut of the music that would be Pentas. When they learned that Eric died later that same night, they decided to dedicate the album to the couple. Pentas displays the intuitive communication the couple has developed over twenty plus years playing together. The pieces follow the easy flow of ideas on “Chill Wind” to explorations of the outer reaches of their instruments sonic potential on “Itsumo Itsumo.”
Prickly Pear Cactus (Libra Records).
Ikue Mori and Satoko Fujii were not about to let something like a worldwide pandemic stop them from making music together. Like many other artists in Covid World, Mori and Fujii turned to swapping sound files through cyberspace. Satoko sent Ikue piano improvisations to construct soundscapes around. Ikue send her laptop sound explorations to Satoko to weave piano melodies and sounds around. Natuski Tamura added trumpet bits and the files went back and forth until the pieces were finished.
Prickly Pear Cactus sounds like something extraterrestrial. I imagine this is what the lounge act on an Interplanetary Spaceways cruise might sound like. Ikue Mori works in a world of pure electronic creation. On “Overnight Mushroom, “ Satoko is playing a very grounded piano and Mori’s sounds suggest Fujii is falling through a wormhole. Natsuki Tamura is hard to pin down. When he’s playing his trumpet more or less straight, ifs easy to tell he’s there. Problem is, when he goes off into his non-traditional ways of coaxing sound out of his horn, it can sound a lot like Mori’s electronic phantasms.
Most artists would be happy to put out one of these albums in a year. This trio of records isn’t even close to Satoko Fujii’s full output for 2020. Wish me luck as I fall down this rabbit hole. There is a deep and wide universe of sound in Fujii’s catalog.