What Wadada Leo Smith is to the trumpet, Satoko Fujii is to the piano: one of the most riveting improvisers to ever play the instrument. Like Smith, her themes can be epic and ambitious to the nth degree, yet her playing is meticulous and nuanced. Where a lot of musicians think in short phrases, Fujii thinks in paragraphs. Her most recent big band album, the harrowingly relevant Fukushima suite, topped the Best Albums of 2017 list here. Her latest project is to release an album a month this year to celebrate her sixtieth birthday. In person, beyond the sheer depth of her music, her indomitable joie de vivre, sense of wonder and daunting chops transcend preconceptions about age. The first release in the series is simply titled Satoko Fujii Solo.
Full disclosure: many of these albums seem to already be in the can. This first one was recorded live in concert in the fall of last year in Yawatahama, Japan. From the first magnificent, moody neoromantic chords of her eight-minute opening number, Inori, the way she distills them down to a simple, catchy three-chord riff and variations is a clinic in tunesmithing. Fujii is also a very site-specific pianist: she feels the room, figures out how long the reverb lasts, then makes it an integral part of the music. She does that here with stabbing chords that build to a series of leaps and bounds. then a starlit outro. Chopin probably worked up a lot of his material this way.
This is a very otherworldly record, bristling with uneasy, insistently modal tangents. Don’t be fooled by the high drone that opens the second number, Geradeaus. That’s not a defect – that’s Fujii bowing and rustling around inside the piano. She finds a low pedal note, expands around it in an emphatic Keith Jarrett way, goes back inside and adjusts the timbre ever so slightly, then lightens a bit and dances around with uneasy chromatics. The few carefree flourishes turn out to be a red herring as this mood piece turns more savage and enigmatic.
As the twelve-minute Ninepin gets underway, Fujii juxtaposes muted gamelanesque taps on the strings…and what sounds like an electric sander on them. Slowly and methodically, she develops what could be a misterioso Indian wee-hours raga…but cuts off the pedal on each phrase suddenly – wherever this is going, we’re not there yet. Some of it could be Satie, or Lennie Tristano, severity balanced against tongue-in-cheek humor.
The even longer Spring Storm is all about foreshadowing: stygian low torrents rise and then subside, give way to hints of a clearing, but that big black cloud is going to hang awhile! It’s Debussy’s garden in the hailstorm, but feeling the force of the elements row by row instead of the cloudburst simply shredding everything in its path.
In Gen Himmel, Fujii lets her Mompou-esque belltones linger, flits around under the lid, and cuts off phrases sharply, Intimations of gospel enter the picture, only to be elbowed out by funereal motives and restless close harmonies. The wryly titled Up Down Left Right begins as a funny study in how gremlins can pop up all over the keyboard, then morphs into twisted, bellicose quasi-boogie-woogie Fujii closes the show by reinventing Jimmy Giuffre’s Moonlight as a distantly menacing, saturnine elegy. “The stars settle slowly, in loneliness they lie,” Phil Ochs sang. Boy, do they ever.
Now where can you find this magical album…other than a Soundcloud page? Stay tuned!