Pianist Satoko Fujii’s epic new solo live album Invisible Hand – streaming at Spotify – is dark and dead serious. She improvises as purposefully and tunefully as anyone who ever lived. If historical accounts are accurate, that puts her on the level of Bach and Schubert, along with Monk, and Brubeck, and Ellington. Those comparisons are deliberate – the astonishingly prolific Fujii’s work combines brooding classical intensity with in-the-moment jazz fearlessness. Her latest project is to release an album a month this year, a promise she’s fulfilled so far. She’s making one of her increasingly rare New York appearances this Aug 29 at 8:30 PM at I-Beam, leading a trio with husband Natsuki Tamura on trumpet and Yoshi Shutto on drums. Cover is $15; be aware that she routinely sells out this venue.
The new album is the debut release on Cortez Records, a new label that’s just as impromptu as Fujii’s music can be. Teruhiko Ito, proprietor of the intimate venue Cortez in the small city of Mito, Japan, essentially launched it to release Fujii’s epic solo concert there from the winter of 2016. In the midst of a snowstorm, a crowd nevertheless came out and responded rapturously.
“Recently I have been hearing that people everywhere in the world are losing interest in music and culture, and the situation is getting worse and worse,” Fujii relates in the liner notes.. “However, around Cortez, there are no signs of that.”
Here are a few reasons why. While Fujii has made scores of albums, almost all of them are with other players. Surprisingly, while perhaps best known as an improviser, she virtually never plays a full set of solo improvisation. The first of this double-cd collection captures only the fourth time in a 25-plus year career that she’s done that.
Which is a paradox, for many reasons, not the least because her improvisation here can sound meticulously composed, while the compositions are spiked with off-the-cuff flourishes and some occasionally pretty wild displays of extended technique. Fujii opened that wintry night with a piece titled Thought, rising through frequent allusions to Satie’s Gymnopedie No. 1, to an intense but judicious crescendo and an ominously quiet, chromatically bristling conclusion. From there she did some scampering and some leapfrogging, but also built a methodical thematic variation and a crashing coda
The album’s towering, thirteen-minute title cut has spare, somber, low-mid register melody and some absolutely macabre moments, set to a autoharp-like rainy-day wash of sound that Fujii resonates on the strings inside the piano. In almost sixteen minutes of Floating, she creates a mystical ambience with spare, serioso phrasing and then a muted temple bell-like melody, again played with inside the piano. It sounds practically like a koto.
Fujii’s shift toward a steady anthemic drive that’s practically a stadium rock ballad is striking – how much is she messing with the audience, and how much just with herself? Yet, she ends it with her signature gravitas. She concludes the set with Hayase, working a rather grimly percussive raga-like melody against a central tone.
The second cd opens with a somber single chord, then Fujii makes her way into the ineluctably uneasy, spacious I Know You Don’t Know, leaving her phrases and spare clusters to linger. Flickers of Charles Ives contemplation contrast with waves of Cecil Taylor agitation
Summer Storm juxtaposes cascading, neoromantically-tinged phrasing with circular, Glass-ine melody. The subtle syncopation and ever-present angst of Inori bring the Satie echoes into even closer focus, with a cell-like Reichian precision. After the tumbling bustle of Green Cab, seemingly the most improvisational piece here, Fujii closes with a gospel-infused take of Gen Himmel, the title track to her hushed, rapturous 2013 album.
Fujii is no stranger to a magnum opus. Her densely orchestrated, harrowing 2017 Fukushima suite is her darkest masterpiece to date and was ranked best album of the year here. Her 2008 double cd Minamo, a duo with violist Karla Kihlstedt, is almost as shattering. This one is close behind, another notch in the hall of fame credentials of a rugged individualist who is as consistently interesting and relevant as she is prolific.