Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York - Fukushima

Label: Libra Records, 2017

Lineup - Satoko Fujii: composer, arranger, conductor; Tony Malaby, Ellery Eskelin: tenor sax; Oscar Noriega: alto sax; Andy Laster: baritone sax; Dave Ballou, Herb Robertson, Natsuki Tamura: trumpet; Joey Sellers, Joe Fiedler, Curtis Hasselbring: trombone; Nels Cline: guitar; Stomu Takeishi: electric bass; Ches Smith: drums.


Creative Japanese pianist, composer, and bandleader Satoko Fujii had a particularly appealing year in terms of new music and enrichment of a prolific and audacious career marked by consistency and innovation.
Following the stimulating album Aspiration, a quartet session recorded with the virtuosic trumpeters Wadada Leo Smith and Natsuki Tamura and electronics wizard Ikue Mori, the pianist focuses on a wider scenario, commanding her famous Orchestra New York, a 13-piece big band that includes some of the best improvisers and sound explorers on the scene. The work expresses feelings and sensations related to the nuclear power plant disaster of Fukushima occurred in 2011.

Devised as a continuous one-hour suite, the piece was divided into five untitled parts for this record, starting with air noises that can be associated with wind blows or sea waves coming and going, intercalated with aching silences. In the periphery of this irregular hissing, we have percussive garnitures such as irregular rattles, screeches, and impulsive baritone notes surrounded by atmospheric guitar chops. It’s a slow awakening, but a powerful one. And that can be testified when the guitarist Nels Cline applies his tart chords, joining Stomu Takeishi’s electric bass plucks before a mysterious sonic mass of short cacophonous phrases and rueful cries grows in anxiety and dimension.
Track 2” is a mutable 16-minute odyssey that flourishes with the consistent drumming of Ches Smith, who roots it through the regularity of his breathable cymbal strokes. It obtains an ominous, electrifying textural persuasiveness while assorted saxophones murmur upon. A beautifully melodic moment comes to our attention when the written lines, delivered in parallel motion by the reedists, fill our ears with a magnified certitude. The saxophonists, often resorting to flutter-tonguing and other extended multi-timbre techniques, cause a great impression, operating over a malleable, thin, yet absorbing foundation built by bass, guitar, and subdued brushed drumming. This piece flutters with extraordinary dynamics and its segments are sometimes light and easygoing yet, at moments, dense and severe due to occasional collective ascendancy. Everything ends like in the beginning (with air sounds) but not before the establishment of a stylish passage where the horn section holds on a predetermined phrase laid down over a solid, tendentiously dark tapestry rooted in the rock genre. 

Far more reserved, “Track 3” brings us Noriega's saxophone roams with multiple ticking sounds aside, featuring trumpet wails and laments, collective warbles, and a relentless buzzing intensified by a trombone that begs for backup. He gets it by the end in another grandiose instrumentation packed with emotion and color.

Before the concise heavenly contemplation of “Track 5”, the record's encouraging final piece, “Track 4” packs another great instrumental juncture that begins unhurriedly with four bass notes implying a sparse yet revelatory harmonic sequence. It scrumptiously unfolds into a groove as the baritone of Andy Laster joins the bassist, welcoming the improvisers to share something from their own. After a few indignant collective roars, the victory of human resilience arrives with the regeneration of the unyielding 5/4 groove.

Painfully contemporary and garnished with off-kilter elements and conscientious coalescence, Fukushima is another triumph for Ms. Fujii, an insightful orchestrator.

        Grade  A

        Grade A

Favorite Tracks:
02 – Track 2 ► 03 – Track 3 ► 04 – Track 4

Satoko Fujii - Aspiration

Label/Year: Libra Records, 2017

Lineup – Wadada Leo Smith: trumpet; Natsuki Tamura: trumpet; Satoko Fujii: piano; Ikue Mori: electronics.


Prolific Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii became a reference in the extreme end of the avant-garde jazz. Not only her ambitious big band projects (New York, Tokyo, and Berlin) have deserved accolade all over the world, but also other collaborative works like the great album Duets, recorded with the inventive bassist Joe Fonda, have drawn very positive reactions among the lovers of the creative current.

On Aspiration, her latest album, she relies on a portentous frontline of trumpeters composed of Natsuki Tamura and Wadada Leo Smith, and complements it with the electronics wizard Ikue Mori. This unusual formation also marks the very first collaboration of the pianist with the latter two.

To introduce “Intent” there is a cutting, multiphonic trumpet, later joined by its equal, which operates in synch but an octave below. Fujii’s awe-inspiring chords and linear notes contextualize the pair of horns, which keep emitting beseeching cries, in an unpredictable contemplative-aggressive communion that feels as much sinister as marvelous. The tasteful electronic effects thrown in by Mori integrate perfectly with Fujii’s textural approach. This also becomes particularly noticeable on the title track, a showcase for the bandleader’s entrancing harmonic movements and melodic delineations, and “Floating”, a piece where the trumpets fiercely clash after an atmospheric start. The horns collapse, having Fujii’s meddling framework attempting to get between them. They end up agreeing at the end, reducing the turbulence considerably and following the same interstellar route with unflinching stability.
Liberation”, composed by the quartet, is another segment where we can observe Wadada and Tamura embarking on mesmerizing blows as they explore the timbres of their instruments. The long high-pitched notes dropped by one of them go against the muted short phrases of the other, while Fujii, getting into action at a later time, sounds relentlessly spectral in her moves. The band skews any effusive liberating movement until the last section, which engulfs us with a stormy, deep-toned sonic efflux.

The last track is Tamura’s “Stillness”, whose initial deep tranquility awakes gradually, stirring dynamics while progressing toward a whirlwind of emotions. It is a wonderful track and the proper closure of this narrative work.

Aspiration is a challenging trip to the free-form imaginaries of a quartet that searches for the perfect poise in the abstractness and exactness of sounds.

       Grade  B+

       Grade B+

Favorite Tracks:
01 - Intent ► 04 - Aspiration ► 06 - Stillness

Satoko Fujii Orchestra Tokyo - Peace

Satoko Fujii: piano; Masaya Kimura and Kenichi Matsumoto: tenor sax; Sachi Hayasaka: soprano and alto sax; Kunihiro Izumi: alto sax; Ryuichi Yoshida: baritone sax; Christian Pruvost, Natsuki Tamura, Yoshihito Fukumoto, Takao Watanabe: trumpet; Yasuyuki Takahashi, Haguregumo Nagamatsu, Toshihiro Koike: trombone; Toshiki Nagata: bass; Akira Horikoshi and Peter Orins: drums.


Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii, a highly creative exponent of the international avant-garde jazz scene, has been riding on the crest of the wave through formations that range from solo to large ensembles.
Throughout more than two decades, experimentalism has been a trait she exploits in each of her albums.

Her latest feature, Peace, recorded with the 15-piece Orchestra Tokyo, is a stunningly arranged tribute to the late Canadian guitarist Kelly Churko, who lived in Japan for more than a decade before dying of cancer in 2014. This is the pianist’s fifth album with this particular orchestra, another high point in her vast curriculum of big-band formations (New York, Nagoya, Kobe, and Berlin), and an excellent follow-up to her duo recording with the bassist Joe Fonda, precisely entitled Duet.

The album kicks in with “2014”, a 32-minute challenge delivered with no obstructions or discriminations. It features two French guests: drummer Peter Orins and trumpeter Christian Pruvost. The latter opens the curtains with breath attacks and then steadfast phrases, entering into a strange dialogue with the former. Subsequently, the saxophonist Masaya Kimura and the trombonist Yasuyuki Takahashi create another unorthodox, microtonal dialogue. Advancing like a storm, the tune easily gets the shape of a 4/4 orchestral jubilation populated with percussive contrivance and brash horn blows. All wrapped up in psychedelic effervescence. 

Jasper” has no connotations with the amazing vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, who gave the same title to one of his most unforgettable tunes. It was rather composed by Fujii’s husband, the trumpeter Natsuki Tamura. In a symbiotic exchange, Toshiki Nagata’s balmy bowed bass and Sachi Hayasaka’s melodious soprano wave at each other in an accessible, curvy salutation peppered by Oriental flavors. Despite the pacific atmosphere, don’t be surprised if paroxysms arise in a sporadic way.

Highly contrasting is the title track, a colorful eruption of avant-jazz muscularity whose horn infestation creates sonic noise and confusion, even if well-defined melodic lines inhabit in the back.

Chosen to close, is “Beguine Nummer Eins”, a grandiose triumph that glides as a freeing hymn, similar to those of Carla Bley or Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra. A voluptuous susceptibility takes possession of the melodic strolls, which are galvanized by Yoshihito Fukumoto’s emphatic trumpet solo.

Whether attracting or repulsing, Fujii’s music is always full of passion and unlimited artistic creativity. Peace was forged by the hands of an adventurous pianist and master conductor who’s capable of moving in different directions with an extravagant magnificence.

         Grade  A-

         Grade A-

Favorite Tracks: 
01 – 2014 ►02 – Jasper ►04 – Beguine Nummer Eins