A Stone Residency This Week by One of the World’s Greatest, Most Relevant Pianists

by delarue

Pianist Satoko Fujii made headlines by releasing an album a month last year. That brings her discography to over seventy releases as a bandleader. That’s B.B. King territory -and is even more astonishing since King was in his late eighties by the time he hit that mark. Fujii, who just turned sixty, has never sounded more relevant, or more powerful than she has lately. Her harrowing Fukushima Suite with her Orchestra New York – a venomous indictment of duplicity and greed on the part of the Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power Company for covering up the ongoing effects of the world’s first mass-scale waterborne nuclear disaster – was picked as best album of 2017 here. Her most recent flurry of releases since then are not as overtly dark but are all worth hearing, for the sheer depth of her melodies, her prowess and conversational sensibility as an improviser, and value as a jazz magnet: so many people want to play with her. She’s got a weeklong residency at the Stone at the New School starting tomorrow night, April 30 and continuing through May 4, leading a different ensemble every night at 8:30 PM; cover is $20.

Opening night, with her Orchestra New York, is an obvious choice, but the May 1 duo set with bassist Joe Fonda is just as tempting. The two have recorded two live albums together. The first, simply titled Duet – streaming at Bandcamp -is a real landmark, especially considering that the two had never even met before their late 2015 performance to a small but rapt crowd at Woodfords Congregational Church in Portland, Maine. Fonda floated first floated the idea to Fujii, who at the time only had an inkling of who he was (this is what happens when you spend all your time making albums and playing shows).

The concert features two improvisations. The first, titled Paul Bley, clocks in at almost 38 nonstop minutes. The second, JSN – meaning Joe, Satoko, Natsuki (Fujii’s husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura) is two-thirds less epic. Since Fonda initiated the collaboration, he gets to starts the first number solo, with a dancing pulse. Fujii joins him and follows as he gravitates toward a funky lope, but then she starts dancing outside the lines, leaping and quickly adding one of her signature tropes, a saturnine glimmer. Insistent piano chords lead to scrambling phrases; Fonda stays steady and emphatic to the point where Fujii leaves him to carry the tune. Her re-entry, falling through a nighty sky with a steady, fast exchange of righthand and lefthand chords, is stellar in every possible sense of the word.

Some scampering up to a twisted, staccato boogie, a wry conversation with Fujii doing nails-down-the-strings inside the piano, and Fonda growling and blooping around follow in turn. Fujii hits a momentary bumblebee flight; there are some scrapes and scrambles and shuffles and more of that surreal quasi-boogie. There’s also a long passage where Fujii plays bad cop versus Fonda’s goodnatured leaps, accents and occasionally warpy drollery – except in a rare moment where he switches to flute for balmy contrast.

Fujii hints at grimness and austere Debussy-esque lustre, then branches outward, lightheartedly as Fonda ‘s sometimes sputtering, sometimes balletesque phrasing subtly echoes her. They hammer and bustle and suddenly freeze. The coda is unexpectedly starry and gamelanesque.

Tamura opens the second number with a coy, distant, loopy muted phrase; both Fujii and Fonda move with slow deliberation toward modal eeriness. Fujii turns more of that Debussy enigma phrasing into a funhouse-mirror paraphrase of Chopsticks; Tamura leads the trio into a Keystone Kops in the Rainforest tableau. Who would expect so much almost outrageous humor after all that intensity? Yet they leave the ending with a aching lack of resolve, whistling across a vast, intimidating steppe. All of this and more will probably be conjured up at the Stone this week.