What do musicians do when their careers, and their sources of income, have been stolen from them by the lockdowners? Pianist Satoko Fujii and trumpeter Natsuki Tamura came to the point where the only option was to turn their Tokyo home into a recording studio..and started putting out one amazing album after another. Their latest, Keshin, is streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a gorgeous and erudite record, packed with humor and horror, and a resolute determination. It’s transcendent in the purest sense: this is clearly what these two road warriors are doing to stay sane. Fujii and Tamura most likely do not see themselves as heroes, but there’s genuine heroism in their music: running the gamut of possible emotional reactions, they offer incredibly inspiring perseverance and hope at this pivotal moment in history.
They might also be doing this because they sense that the forces of sanity and compassion are going to win this battle. As the ugly statistics continue to pour in from Europe – thousands dead, hundreds of thousands maimed – the needle of death is dead in the water. Someday soon, we’ll be able to listen to this album both as portent and celebration, as dark as it may sound now.
The first track, Busy Day, starts out ridiculously funny: it’s not fair to give the joke away. The bustle from there never stops: very precise, very tongue-in-cheek harmonies, Fujii getting sick of the whole thing and thinking again and again of smashing it to bits, Tamura delivering a handful of withering, machinegunning, goosebump-inducing solos. He’s the Japanese Peter Evans…or, Peter Evans is the American Natsuki Tamura.
Track two, Donten has Tamura playing variations on a catchy, easygoing theme as Fujii lingers in the ominous lows and eventually cedes centerstage completely. She returns with spare, guarded minimalism as Tamura refuses to relent, then goes deep into the cave, as she’s been doing lately, cascading and quietly lamenting: when is this madness going to end? The shivering low-high contrasts afterward are as haunting as anything released this year.
Fujii opens Dreamer as a solo, icily Messiaenic lockstep pavane: subtext, anybody? Tanura’s shininess overhead dovetails perfectly. Three Scenes is surreal to the extreme: Tamura begins with rubbery bubble-rubbing squeaks against Fujii’s chilly, emphatic chords and then reaches for the sky as she parses creepy chromatics and an offhandedly hellish bell choir. The reprise of the sotto-voce stroll from the previous number isn’t lost here, although it seems like more of a real victory this time.
The two maintain the horrorstricken/calmly indomitable dichotomy in the album’s title track: it’s the great lost next-to-last segment from the Quartet For the End of Time, at least until Fujii gets all the nervous tension out of her system and brings back the carillonesque solemnity.
The dichotomy between intense piano agitation and determined, optimistic trumpet is less severe, more minimalistically auspicous in the next-to-last number, Drop, although Tamura’s signal for a flamencoish theme soon reaches incendiary heights. Husband and wife close yet another brilliant album with Sparrow Dance, a shadow version of the playful opening track: trouble is still afoot in this twisted space, and it can strike anywhere, particularly as Fujii develops a macabre vortex. She has two other albums out recently which are contenders for best record of 2021 and this makes three.