New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

The Lockdown Can’t Stop Satoko Fujii, Ikue Mori and Natsuki Tamura From Making Gorgeous, Haunted Music

Very little of the music made over the web since the lockdown is worth hearing. Rhythms are jittery, the playing is over-careful, maybe in keeping with conventional wisdom – never a good thing to fall back on. And mixes are haphazard, considering the vast variations in sonics between locations. In that context, pianist Satoko Fujii’s new album Prickly Pear Cactus with trumpeter Natsuki Tamura and laptop pioneer Ikue Mori is even more of a triumph.

it started with two old buds from the Stone scene swapping files over the web. To Mori’s immense credit as engineer and sonic architect, she lets Fujii be Fujii and keeps the electronics in sync with the music’s characteristically vast, often unselfconsciously poignant emotional content

Fujii, as usual, is transcendent. Thoughtful and focused to the nth degree, this is persistently troubled but also resolutely energetic music. “We encouraged each other to help us deal with a crazy and dangerous global situation,” Fujii explains. And how.

The electronic waterfall that opens the album’s title track is a red herring: this isn’t one of Mori’s cyclotron remixes. Fujii moves somberly and spaciously further into the picture, soon cutting loose torrents in the low registers in contrast to Mori’s twinkles, Tamura hanging sepulchrally on the fringes. Unresolved as it remains, Fujii’s stygian descent at the end is a welcome payoff.

Fujii’s spare, guarded neoromantic lines mingle with Mori’s bloops and bleeps in Sweet Fish. Mori delicately shadows Fujii’s scrambles, clusters and incisions in Guerrilla Rain. This particular Mountain Stream moves more like a glacier, Tamura’s wispy extended technique barely present. One of the great extrovert wits in jazz, he looks absolutely disconsolate on the album cover. Who can blame him.

Five tracks in, we finally get the surreal, desolate epic Overnight Mushroom, beginning as a soundscape with Fujii first inside the piano, then circling in the lows with frequently creepy Satie-esque chromatics. The considerably shorter Empty Factory makes a good segue: it’s basically a second movement.

In the Water begins with Fujii’s eerie, mutedly bell-like prepared piano, which gives way to what could be an approximation of whale song from her bandmates. Her ominous return is one of the album’s most riveting interludes

She goes back to clusters and Satie, building suspense in the lows before rising toward Russian Romantic majesty in Turning. Tamura whistles and flurries over Fujii’s kinetic rumbles in Muddy Stream. The album’s concluding epic is Sign, Fujii tracing a spacious, stark trajectory through the desolation. What a gorgeous and haunting record.

The Best Manhattan and Brooklyn Music Venues of 2020

Every year since 2007, this blog and its predecessor would salute a venue from both Manhattan and Brooklyn as the best in its respective borough. The premise was to give props to clubs and spaces that might be flying a little under the radar but deserved to be better known.

In the beginning, there was no shortage of venues to choose from. As the years went by, gentrification took its ugly toll. In Manhattan, especially, trying to come up with a new pick every year became more and more of a challenge. In 2020, with the lockdowners hell-bent on destroying the arts around the world, the only commercial spaces in New York where musicians were allowed to perform for pay after March 16 were restaurants. In an edict that will go down in infamy, dictator Andrew Cuomo’s State Liquor Authority prohibited any kind of music that wasn’t “incidental.” Consider: the SLA were given the right to determine who can and who can’t be booked to perform. It’s as if we’re living in North Korea, or the old Soviet Union.

But New York musicians and devotees of the arts weren’t about to be stopped by a fascist regime. In private homes and back gardens, on lawns and in parks, on streetcorners and under monuments, in cemeteries, vacated classrooms and the backs of empty trucks, church basements, disused gyms and shuttered retail backrooms, you gathered to keep music alive: unafraid, unmuzzled and undeterred.

When the lockdown has been overthrown and the history is written, you will be remembered forever as heroes. You kept your musical chops up to speed, but even more importantly, you gave people hope at a time when there didn’t seem to be any. For that reason, the Best Manhattan Venue and Best Brooklyn Venue this year is your place. You earned it.