Cartoons and Monsters From Satoko Fujii’s Thermos
File this under be careful what you wish for: a dozen albums, one every month, from perennially intense, captivating pianist Satoko Fujii? To celebrate her sixtieth birthday, she’s done exactly that. Much as the nuts and bolts of officially putting out each record must have been tiresome, the music has been characteristically fresh and outside-the-box. And the project has been a lot easier for her than it would be for most artists. Like most jazz musicians these days, she pretty much lives on the road, and at this point in her career everybody from Wadada Leo Smith on down wants to work with her, so she has pretty much unlimited access to global talent. And she’s figured out that the way to make albums in this era is simply to record her shows and release the best ones.
Album number ten in her twelve-album cycle is the debut of a group she calls Mahobin. In Japanese, it means “thermos,’ but the literal meaning is “magic bottle.” To what extent did she manage to bottle the magic at this 2018 set in Kobe, Japan with her husband and longtime collaborator, Natsuki Tamura, along with tenor saxophonist Lotte Anker and Ikue Mori on laptop? The results are both hilarious and macabre. This is an amazing record, even if the electronics are too loud.
There’s a set and an encore here – ot so it seems. The humor is relentless at the beginning of the 42-minute first piece, Rainbow Elephant. Everybody is in on it; Star Trek command center bubbles and blips, black noise like at the end of A Day in the Life, a fishtank on steroids, cuisinarted minor-key piano blues riffage, mulish snorts, a ridiculously funny trumpet fanfare and cartoon mice on a treadmill inside the piano tinkling away are just a few things the music might remind you of.
Then Fujii suddenly flips the script with a stern, syncopated low lefthand pedal note and works uneasy Messiaenic permutations, moving slowly upward as Mori oscillates wildly. Anker’s role here is mostly quavery, uneasy sustained lines; Tamura sticks mostly to more sepulchral extended technique, although when he goes in with his chromatics, he goes for the jugular.
Meanwhile, it seems like Mori is sampling her bandmates and then spinning everybody back on themselves, sometimes using a backward making pedal for extra surrealism. Fujii’s ability to make up a theme on the spot and embellish it later on is unsurpassed in all of music, and the enigmatic way she ends this very long, very strange trip goes against all conventional thinking in order to drive it home, dark and hard.
The relatively short encore, Yellow Sky is seven minutes ten seconds of Frankenstein building a fire – that’s Fujii – with the rest of the band as seagulls circling overhead. Creative music in 2018 doesn’t get any better, or more captivatingly weird, than this. Fujii and Mahobin are at the Stone – which is now located at the first-floor Glass Box Theatre at the New School at 55 W 13th St. – at 8:30 PM on Dec 13. Cover is $20; get there early, because Fujii’s New York shows have been selling out regularly.
The best overview of Fujii’s yearlong project is not at this blog, sadly. The New York City Jazz Record put her on the cover of their September issue and included an exhaustive and enthusiastic review of her 2018 output. But not to worry: there will be much more Fujii on this page in the weeks and months ahead.