A Playful, Entertaining, Expertly Choreographed Change of Pace for the Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York
This is not to suggest that there could possibly be any upside to the coronavirus crisis for anyone other than a criminal – but at least it’s been a chance to catch up on what one of this era’s most distinctively prolific composers and pianists, Satoko Fujii, has been up to lately. She records pretty much everywhere she plays: the ratio of greatness to mere goodness in her work is superhuman. Her latest album – at least last time anybody here checked – is Entity, with her Orchestra New York, whose 2017 Fukushima Suite ranks with any other big band jazz album released this century.
In general, this one is either more sardonically funny or soberly shamanistic, without the outright rage and terror invoked by that landmark work. As usual, it’s packed with tightly choreographed moments for collective improvisation: it careens and sways, but it doesn’t swing in the usual sense of the word. These are long songs, going on for ten or fifteen minutes at a clip.
The album opens with the title track, a diptych, kickking off with hints of a shamanic beat, squiggly guitar effects, and finally a massed, microtonal march that drummer Ches Smith tumbles around until six-string guy Nels Cline hits a mighty boom and the music falls away. Cline’s roars and toxically bubbling trails bring the orchestra back in, rising up this time, as the drums go completely hardcore: this music has a very 80s downtown New York feel. The second part is much more ominously airy until Fujii signals a return to that twistedly, stairstepping march.
Flashback begins with a less pronounced martial beat: with its surreal volleys of microtonal triplets from the horns, it’s an action movie theme in disguise. A wry good cop/bad cop conversation between bassist Stomu Takeishi and trombonist Joe Fiedler falls away for a playfully glissandoing alto sax solo by Oscar Noriega, setting up a spaciously chattering rise by the whole band. Then it’s trumpeter Herb Robertson who gets to tickle the rhythm section, up to a series of tongue-in-cheek false endings.
Hypnotic sheets of sound from the reeds shift slowly through the sonic picture as Gounkaiku takes shape. A stately, syncopated, characteristically catchy processional follows, Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother through a funhouse mirror. Trumpeter Dave Ballou’s jaunty, straightforward solo finally falls apart into squiggliness just as the orchestra decide to stop messing around and get serious. Fujii being a Libra, she knows a good dialectic when she hears one, underscored by how she brings the music full circle.
In Elementary Particle, Takeishi’s Briggs and Stratton engine burble mingles with alto saxophonist Ellery Eskelin’s shivery lines, orchestral atmospherics punching in and out: we get a redemptively crazy coda. The final cut, Everlasting, has symphonic majesty, Cline’s stratospheric flute-like melody anchored by growly bass and a Japanese folk-tinged melody. Then buffoonery ensues: first trumpeter Natsuki Tamura irresistibly antagonizing trombonist Curtis Hassellbring, then alto player Briggan Krauss and baritonist Andy Laster playing tag like a couple of of four-year-olds.
This isn’t Fujii’s most accessible work, but it’s very entertaining, another triumph for a band which also includes reedman Tony Malaby. Like many other albums released during this spring’s crisis, it hasn’t hit the web yet.