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A Haunting Album For Our Time by Iconic Pianist Satoko Fujii

You can tell how serious people are by the extremes they go to. Pianist Satoko Fujii managed to finish her new solo album Hazuki – streaming at Bandcamp – with an icepack on her neck. That may not be as much of a display of superhuman endurance as the two Curt Schillling bloody sock games, but it’s in the same league. Yet, the Boston Red Sox pitcher humbly requested to be taken off the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot. Likewise, Fujii also doesn’t seem to want anything more than the opportunity to sell out a jazz club, as she routinely did before the lockdown. Undeterred, she keeps putting out brilliant albums as a way to stay current and maybe make a few bucks since live music has been criminalized in so many of the parts of the world where she used to play.

The album title is medieval Japanese for “August,” which is when she recorded the record in the unventilated music room in her Tokyo apartment in almost hundred-degree heat last year. How hot is this music? It’s a distinctive, elegantly articulated portrait of the desperation of a career on ice and a world slipping toward a holocaust. As usual, Fujii often goes under the piano lid for all kinds of unorthodox sonics: approximations of an autoharp, a koto or a monsoon crushing the coast, which she intermingles with increasingly portentous, menacing variations on a simple, ominous lefthand riff in the album’s opening track, Invisible.

The second number, Quarantined is part Messaienic, carrilonesque study in making do with what we have and part monstrous apocalyptic tableau: this record is one of Fujii’s most energetic, even explosive albums in recent memory and this is one of its most haunting interludes. She works those close-harmonied chords with even more of a funereal angst in Cluster (possibly a take on the concept of “COVID clusters,” real or imagined). Throughout her work, Fujii typically maintans a distance from the macabre, if only for the sake of suspense, but not here.

Hoffen (German for “hope”) is aptly titled, a matter-of-factly imploring atmosphere infusing this soberly cascading, crescendoing, relentlessly emphatic ballad without words. Fujii builds an even more tightly claustrophobic, raga-like, modal intensity in the next number, Beginning, perhaps ironically one of the album’s catchiest tunes.

She develops Ernesto, a Che Guevara homage, around an artful assemblage of climbing phrases, complete with looming, stygian atmospherics and a seemingly withering parody of generic ballad architecture. Expanding, an older but previously unrecorded tune, begins as a study in leapfrogging modalities but rises toward a hard-hitting, catchy, late 50s Miles Davis-style tableau. Fujii closes the album with Twenty-Four Degrees and its steady, Mompou-esque chimes, a cool settling in after the oppressive conditions under which Fujii made the record. Three months into 2021, and she’s already released two of the strongest contenders for best album of the year: this one, and her Prickly Pear Cactus duo collaboration with vibraphonist Taiko Saito.

A Magical, Mysterious Masterpiece by Satoko Fujii and Taiko Saito

Pianist Satoko Fujii has made more good albums than just about anyone alive. Part of that is because she’s made more albums than just about anyone alive – over ninety as a bandleader or co-leader. There is no one with more infinite gravitas livened by a surprisingly devious sense of humor. Her latest album, Beyond is one of her most rivetingly evocative and marks the debut of yet another new project, Futari, a duo with vibraphonist Taiko Saito streaming at Bandcamp.

These songs are on the long, quiet and extremely spacious side. Fujii typically takes centerstage but not always. Her sound world has expanded considerably, to an otherworldly rapture in the last couple of years. The one here is akin to an eclipse, equal parts dark and celestial. Often it’s hard to tell who’s playing what, enhancing the mystery.

The opening number, Molecular has a subtly tremoloing vibraphone drone punctuated by whispery rustles and eerily microtonal, rhythmically chiming prepared piano, like a mobile in the breeze wafting from the great beyond. In the second track, Proliferation, a murky drone filters in and then gives way to squirrelly noises and surreal hints of a boogie before Saito fires off liltingly Lynchian phrases over Fujii’s gathering storm.

Echoey long-tone vibraphone drifts through the mix in Todokani Tegami as Fujii colors it with a haunting austerity, leading up to an absolutely macabre music-box theme. The album’s title track rises from barely perceptible whispers to spare bell-like piano accents, Saito’s microtones a chill little breeze under the door.

On the Road is not a jazz poetry piece (sorry, couldn’t resist) – it’s a moody, modal tableau with a tight, steady interweave of allusively Arabic tonalities and an ending tacked on that’s way too good to spoil. To steal a title from the John Cale book, the calmer moments of Mizube could be called Fragments of a Rainy Season.

A shockingly straightforward, Lynchian waltz quickly gives way to Messiaenic insistence and eventual fullscale freakout, then back, in Ame No Ato. Saito’s chromatics lingering above Fujii’s steady, phantasmagorical chords in Mobius Loop are a red-neon treat; thunder and an after-the-rain chill ensue.

The two return to ambience punctuated by bell-like accents to close the record on a vast, meditative note with Spectrum. Saito’s strengths as a listener and an elegant orchestrator deserve a bandmate as focused as Fujii, whose extemporaneous tunesmithing gets pushed to new levels here. It’s awfully early in the year to be speculating about the best album of 2021, but there’s nothing that’s been released so far that can touch the sheer magic of this one.

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.

Vast Rapture and Playful Scrambles From Brilliant, Individualistic Pianist Eunyoung Kim

Pianist Eunyoung Kim plays improvised music that draws as much on 20th century and contemporary classical music as it does jazz. Her technique is daunting, and she has a rare fluency for orchestrating on the spot. Themes and variations are big with her, as are close harmonies. She flirts with twelve-tone ideas without being tying the knot with them. Her new album, Earworm – streaming at Bandcamp – is like nothing you’ve ever heard before.

The first number – each of the album’s tracks is untitled – has a steady, playfully dancing rhythm with hints of swing, tango and the baroque disguised behind close harmonies. If Louis Andriessen played jazz, it might sound something like this.

Track two is a vast, otherworldly, minimalist soundscape, akin to Federico Mompou at a tenth the speed, maybe. Kim returns to playfully rhythmic mode with the tune after that, an increasingly thorny series of curlicuing phrases and variations that grow more murky and hypnotic.

Track four reflects the spacious minimalism of track two, but more somberly and intricately: it brings to mind Satoko Fujii’s most brooding solo work. Blippy, leapfrogging phrases and staccato insistence mingle in the piece after that, down to a striking interlude fueled by stern quasi-boogie low-register work.

Track six begins as a synthesis of the bounciness and the moody minimalism that Kim has been shifting between so far; then she romps toward Monk and gospel music. She finally goes under the piano lid for her seventh improvisation, a momentary return to somber stillness.

With Kim’s steady, bracing modalities and steady, incisive attack, track eight reminds of Keith Jarrett’s 1960s work. Next up, Kim clusters and jabs with breathtaking speed and articulacy: that she waits this long before cutting loose with her chops testifies to her commitment to making a statement rather than showing off.

The album’s tenth track is increasingly hypnotic variations on a wry, loopy modal phrase. Kim closes the record with an approximation of a Monk-ish wee-hours ballad. Like all the albums on the new Mung Music label out of Korea, this was recorded live to a vintage Tascam cassette recorder before being digitized.

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 scare 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 theme. 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.

Satoko Fujii Just Keeps Reinventing Herself

From this blog’s perspective, one of the great things about pianist Satoko Fujii coming to town more frequently these days is that it’s an excuse to listen to another one of her records: she puts them out at an astonishing pace matched only by the astonishingly consistent quality of the music. Her next New York gig is at 8 PM this Feb 11 at Roulette with her Kaze quartet; advance tix are $18 and available there on shownights.

Of the new albums, what’s a good one to spin in advance of the show? There are so many: she put out an album a month in 2018. Why not try Triad, her trio record with bassist Joe Fonda and soprano saxophonist Gianni Mimmo, streaming at Bandcamp

This is Fujii at her most outside-the-box: there doesn’t even seem to be a piano on the record until a couple of minutes into the airy opening number, when it becomes clear that she’s getting the strings inside it to resonate with a few deft punches as Mimmo floats and Fonda goes way up the scale for harmonics you hardly expect from a bass.

The album’s centerpiece is the forty-plus minute improvisation Birthday Girl (the album was recorded on her birthday in 2018). Mimmo gives her a lively shout-out; Fujii’s own entrance is much more austere, echoed by Fonda. With his chords and steady pulse, he holds the center as she clusters tightly, Mimmo in imperturbable good-cop role. Fujii’s icy, Messiaenic insistence, grim low-register riffage, lingering unease and momentary divergences into chaos are typical and classic for her. The hazy sax/bass duet midway through is an unexpected departure.

The remaining three tracks seem like miniatures by comparison. Accidental Partner has a similar carefree/foreboding contrast between sax and piano. No More Bugs is amusingly picturesque and aptly titled. The three close with Joe Melts the Water Boiler, Mimmo finally picking up on Fonda’s sly boogie hints as Fujii plays kitten on the keys.

Arctic Surrealism From Christine Ott and Torsten Bottcher

The 1922 silent film Nanook of the North was a  patronizing noble-savage docudrama that foreshadowed similarly dubious explorations of indigenous cultures by the BBC and PBS. Christine Ott and Torsten Bottcher’s pointillistic, keyboard-based new soundtrack – streaming at Spotify – seems to closely follow the original narrative  This music is much more surreal than you would expect. Digeridoo, tabla and steel pan in a story about Eskimos? Fans of both Philip Glass and Terry Riley ought to enjoy it.

The soundtrack begins with gongs and then whistling bowed bells, a surreal Asian snowscape particularly appropriate for its milieu. The protagonist’s theme is hypnotically circling, minimalist piano over white-noise washes, followed by a lively if repetitive, surrealistically tiptoeing electric keyboard melody.

A rippling open-water kayak tableau and a return to echoey, distantly uneasy electronic piano, with what sounds like a muted ukulele, provide a brief beach scene. Bells and delicate upper-register piano underscore the fragility of Eskimo infant life, followed by muted steel pan alongside bell-like, stealthy, jazz-tinged piano.

From there the score segues into Walrus Hunting – yeah, those adorable creatures are food, that far north – with its grim crescendos over a loopy tabla pulse. The onset of winter signals a hypnotically oscillating, increasingly agitated piece with toy piano and that digeridoo.

The score’s most epic theme, part Fender Rhodes soul, part Japanese temple bell music, concerns igloos. A fateful morning comes tiptoeing in with an eerie, Satie-esque minor-key vamp, then the piano spins around with an elegant, precisely articulated angst. The score closes with the big blizzard portrayed via Satoko Fujii-esque extended-technique piano variations. Of all this year’s movie soundtracks, this has to be one of the most original.

Deep Listening From Perennially Adventurous Pianist Satoko Fujii

Late in life, pianist Satoko Fujii‘s grandmother lost her hearing. Yet she maintained that after becoming deaf, she heard sounds of incredible beauty in her head. Fujii’s new solo album Stone – which hasn’t hit the web yet – is an attempt to evoke such a world. Her raison d’etre, throughout a wildly prolific career, has been “to play music that nobody has ever heard before.” This is definitely that: it’s one of her most strangely entertaining albums.

The opening track, Obsius comes across as rapt, still, minimalist phrases in a thunderstorm. That’s because Fujii, one of the most adventurous extended-technique pianists on the planet, is brushing and probably smacking the low strings to get that cumulo-nimbus ambience. The effect is striking, to say the least.

All but two of the numbers here are improvised; in keeping with the album title, most of the tracks reference a specific layer beneath the earth’s surface. The album’s longest and most atmospheric segment, Trachyte, has long, keening tones punctuated by the occasional pluck inside the piano: Fujii is probably getting all that resonance by bowing the high strings, essentially, using a piece of wire wrapped around them.

Fujii can be very funny: Biotite has a spot-on facsimile of a ringtone, a warpily serviceable analogue for a zither-like instrument such as the Korean gayageum, and a rodent gnawing away at something, or so it would seem. She puts aside the strange sonics for the attractively allusive miniature River Flow, then goes back under the hood for Shale, an eerily chiming, microtonal prepared piano piece.

Phonolite is a Pauline Oliveros-esque exploration of piano-body resonance. To Fujii, Lava seems to issue in waves from a deep, dark place – and then spills over into ornate neoromanticism. Icy Wood is just the opposite, spare and disquietingly bell-like.

With Fujii’s picks and scrapes resonating inside the piano, Piemontite Schist also reflects a hard surface. A buzzing motor and insectile swarming inside the piano give way to some deliciously dark chromatics in Chlorite, while Basalt is a rather coy good cop-bad cop tableau.

You think Sandstone would be portrayed by high harmonics falling away? Check! Marble echoes upward from the lows; Fujii returns to spare drops amid stormy turbulence in Ice Waterfall. She concludes with her composition Eternity, essentially a synopsis of much of this utterly psychedelic album.

The 50 Best Albums of 2018

This is a playlist – click on the links below to hear every album in its entirety.

The best album of 2018 was also one of the shortest. Songwriter Rose Thomas Bannister’s lushly orchestrated latest release, Ambition, is not the first time she’s written on Shakespearean themes, but it is by far her darkest and most relevant album. Originally commissioned for a dance adaptation of Macbeth, the song cycle deals with the most fundamental questions of evil and how to deal with it. Many of the characters in Bannister’s distantly sinister narratives make the worst possible choices at the most crucial moments.

Bannister, who made a name for herself with spare, poignant Great Plains gothic songs, has never written more psychedelically or diversely, or sung with as much nuance and power. From the creepy flurries of the title track, through the grim understatement of Lady M, themes of betrayal and revenge permeate these songs’ constantly shifting, intricate arrangements, Bob Bannister’s elegant lead guitar lines weaving along the central seam. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Beyond the next ten albums or so – the creme de la creme of 2018 – these albums are listed in rough chronological order of when they were received here (which often doesn’t coincide with actual release dates over the past few months). Sp there’s no hierarchical ranking, considering how many completely different styles are represented on the list. If an album is one of the year’s fifty best, it has to be pretty amazing.

Ward White – Diminish
Catcny, erudite, purist three-minute janglerock tunesmithing matched to a withering, cynical, relentlessly grim lyrical sensibility. No songwriter alive writes more allusively macabre stories than this guy,  Endless puns, double entendres, and gallows humor are everywhere. White’s most surreal, psychedelic album to date, Bob, got the nod here as best album of 2013; everything he’s done since is on that level, this one included. The list of artists with as formidable a body of work as White has are very few: Bowie, Elvis Costello and Steve Wynn are points of comparison. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Elysian Fields – Pink Air
Lush jangle and clang, propulsive new wave and haunting dystopic scenarios in what might be the best ever album in haunting singer Jennifer Charles and polymath guitarist Oren Bloedow’s majestic, artsy band’s twenty-plus year carer. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Kotorino – Sea Monster
Carnivalesque latin noir, circus rock, suspenseful cinematic narratives and creepy steampunk tales on this brilliant New York crew’s tersest, most crystallized album yet. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Michael Hersch – Violin Concerto; End Stages suite: International Contemporary Ensemble with violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
The most harrowing recording of the year combines two macabre, microtonal pieces, the latter exploring the tortured, fitful final moments of terminally ill patients. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Ensemble Fanaa – their debut albun
Multi-reedman Daro Behroozi’s otherworldly Middle Eastern/North African jazz trio play slinky, hypnotic, rivetingly microtonal originals. Bassist John Murchison doubles on the gimbri bass lute; percussionist Dan Kurfirst plays both a full kit and a boomy daf frame drum. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Klazz-Ma-Tazz – Meshugenah
High-voltage violinist Ben Sutin’s wild, klezmer-jazz-rock jamband whirl through ferocious, epic remakes of Yiddish vaudeville and theatre classics from over the decades. One of the most adrenalizing albums released this year. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

No-No Boy – 1942
A catchy, jangly, harmony-driven Elliott Smith-tinged concept album tracing the injustices suffered by Japanese-Americans during and after their incarceration in US concentration camps during World War II. One of the year’s most savagely relevant albums. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

The Brooklyn Raga Massive – Ragas Live Retrospective
The most epic album ever featured on this page contains over six hours of classical Indian ragas, recorded live in the studio. A cast of some of this era’s best younger Indian music instrumentalists team up with jazz, Americana and rock musicians for some outside-the-box reinventions, from large ensembles to spare duos and trios. Some of this is pretty crazy; a couple of the tracks are bullshit, but the traditional stuff is consistently sublime. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Todd Marcus – On These Streets: A Baltimore Story
The world’s only bass clarinetist currently leading a large jazz ensemble wrote this withering suite in the wake of the murder of Freddie Gray, a mix of lavish, intense, sometimes Middle Eastern-tinged epics and quieter, more somber material. Commentary from community members and activists is interspersed between songs for added, troubling context. One of the most politically important albums of recent years. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Mehmet Polat – Ageless Garden
Sometimes haunting, sometimes kinetic, this collection of originals by one of the world’s great oudists and composers of Turkish music draws on Kurdish, Andalucian and flamenco sounds as well. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Greek Judas – their debut album
One of the craziest albums on this list is this mix of heavy psychedelic remakes of classic Greek rembetiko anthems, originally dating from the 20s through the mid-50s. Rembetiko was the music of the gangster underworld, Turkish and Cypriot immigrants, and freedom fighters battling dictatorships; its slashing Middle Eastern chromatics take on extra menace when played with heavy metal savagery, Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Drunken Foreigner Band – White Guy Disease
Another crazy update on a slightly more modern sound. The lead instrument in this epic instrumental psychedelic band is an electrified phin lute, which gives their stately Laotian folk themes a surreal, twisted new dimension. If Country Joe & the Fish had been Laotian, they might have sounded something like this. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Gordon Grdina’s Marrow – Ejdeha
The album title is Farsi for “dragon;” the fiery jazz oudist and guitarist and his haunting, careening band switch between darkly slinky original levantine themes and smoldering guitar jazz that veers into dark metal in places. Listen at Spotify

Bombay Rickey – Electric Bhairavi
With her unreal four-octave vocal range, accordionist/sitarist/keyboardist Kamala Sankaram  fronts this catchy, slinky, darkly psychedelic unit, who mash up cumbia, surf and Bollywood with devious flair. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Ben Holmes and Patrick Farrell – The Conqueror Worm Suite
A subtle but luridly vivid, klezmer and Balkan-tinged piece inspired by the macabre  Edgar Allen Poe short story, from the innovative trumpet/accordion duo. Listen at youtube.

Uncivilized Plays Peaks
Guitarist Tom Csatari and his careening ten-piece pastoral jazz outfit had the good sense to record their 2017 Barbes performances of these sprawling, darkly haphazard reinventions of iconic Angelo Badalamenti Twin Peaks themes, plus some choice originals. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Alec K. Redfearn and the Eyesores – The Opposite
Hypnotically circling, kinetic, phantasmagorical original Balkan psychedelic rock, bandleader Redfearn running his accordion through a series of effects pedals for some wildly swirling, enveloping sounds. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Eva Salina & Peter Stan – Sudbina
The renowned Balkan chanteuse and her pyrotechnic accordionist remake songs made famous by one of the greatest Romany singers of the 20th century, Vida Pavlovic, who was sort of the Edith Piaf of Romany music. Abandonment and heartbreak have seldom sounded so visceral. Listen at Spotify

The Lemon Bucket Orkestra – If I Had the Strength
Dark, edgy, wildly punk-inspired original klezmer anthems and dance numbers that draw on a hundred-plus years of Ukrainian, Russian and Lithuanian traditions. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Gordon Grdina – Inroads
The great Middle Eastern jazz oudist and guitarist’s second album on this list features keys and alto sax rather than a string jazz lineup; it’s a little more sardonically funny and Sun Ra-like. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp..

The Michael Leonhart Orchestra – The Painted Lady Suite
The flight of a swarm of butterflies over the top of the world, all the way to Egypt, has never sounded more epic or cinematic. Saxophonist Donny McCaslin stars in this lavish, intense big band cycle of songs without words.  Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Twin Guns – Imaginary World
The latest album by these reverb addicts is slightly less Cramps-influenced, a bit quieter and more macabre than their previous mashups of horror surf and biker rock. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

The Electric Mess – The Beast Is You
These twin-guitar Brooklyn rockers channel the incendiary chromatic psychedelic punk attack of Australian legends Radio Birdman, with some of the most exhilarating fretwork of any album on this list. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Sarah Bernstein’s Unearthish – Crazy Lights Shining
The microtonal violinist – one of the world’s great string jazz players and composers – teams up with percussionist Satoshi Takeishi for an otherworldly, acerbic mix of jazz poetry tableaux and eerily wafting miniatures. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Xylouris White – Mother
The brooding Cretan lyra player and Dirty Three drummer team up for a bracing, sometimes slashing thicket of Middle Eastern-tinged themes. Listen at Spotify,

Sigurd Hole – Encounters
The Norwegian bassist leads a frequently Middle Eastern-tinged string trio through a brooding series of nocturnes, dirges and more atmospheric pieces. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

SUSS – Ghost Box
Starry, eerily lingering, Twin Peaks-style guitar nocturnes, big-sky tableaux and the occasional detour into southwestern gothic themes. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Mary Halvorson – Code Girl
Amirtha Kidambi handles lead vocals on the perennially incisive guitarist’s deepest, most lavish plunge into artsy, shapeshifting, improvisationally-inclined, sometimes darkly humorous rock. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Alicia Svigals and Uli Geissendoerfer – The Beregovski Suite
The iconic klezmer violinist and film composer teams up with the German pianist to rescue these alternately moody and romping, decades-old klezmer themes collected on the eve of the  Holocaust by the great Russian musicologist. Listen at Spotify,

Qais Essar  The Ghost You Love
Incisive, often hauntingly poignant Afghani folk-tinged new instrumentals by this rising star composer and virtuoso of the rubab lute. Listen ad-free at his music page,

Maya Youssef – Syrian Dreams
A dynamic mix of relatively short pieces from one of the world’s most focused, purposeful players on the kanun – the magically rippling Middle Eastern zither. Listen at Spotify,

Satoko Fujii – Invisible Hand
The brilliant pianist celebrated her sixtieth birthday last year by releasing an album a month, including several riveting live sets. This solo performance is dark and dead serious, if hardly as horror-stricken as her Fukushima Suite, picked for best album of the year here in 2018. She improvises as purposefully and tunefully as anyone who ever lived. Listen at Spotify,

Thumbscrew – Ours
The second Mary Halvorson project on this list is the reliably edgy guitarist’s grittiest release this year, often drifting into the shadows for reverberating film noir ambience. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Sean Moran – Sun Tiger
The guitarist’s trio with cellist Hank Roberts (who also appears on this list as part of another guitarist, Gordon Grdina’s band) and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza smolders and burns, with frequent detours into pastoral jazz.  Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Sean Noonan – The Aqua Diva
The weirdest album on this list. Alex Marcelo puts a slightly out-of-tune piano to better use than you would think possible, maxing out the overtones in this bizarre mix of mythologically-inspired stream-of-consciousness poetry, darkly magical jazz, gospel and theatre music. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

The Women’s Raga Massive Compilation
The only reason that this is further down the list from the other compilation by the irrepressible Brooklyn Indian music collective is that it’s shorter – by about five hours. This mix of hypnotic, epic traditional performances along with rock and soul-tinged remakes of classic carnatic themes features seventeen of the women artists and female-fronted bands among the Raga Massive’s vast membership. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Bill Frisell – Music IS
This era’s preeminent jazz guitarist breaks out his trusty loop pedal for a characteristically tuneful, concise mix of pastoral themes, atmospherics, oldtimey melodies and noir-tinged cinematics. Listen at Spotify,

Elisa Flynn – The World Has Ever Been on Fire
The first-ever solo album by this historically-inspired, hauntingly soaring singer and multi-instrumentalist, with songs ranging from hypnotic, Radiohead-ish art-rock to jangly, toweringly angst-fueled anthems. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Lorraine Leckie – Live at Mercury Lounge
Further evidence that psychedelic bands should all be making live albums. The guys in this band seem so psyched to be playing these pulsing, Slavic-tinged themes that they’re jumping out of their shoes. There’s a sad backstory: this was the final show played by the late, great drummer Paul Triff. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Banda Magda – Tigre
A characteristically cinematic, mightily shapeshifting mix of Mediterranean psychedelia, coy French chanson, cumbia and lavish instrumentals by accordionist/multi-instrumentalist Magda Giannikou’s subtle, richly textured band. The theme is resilience in troubled times, inspired by the Greek struggle against European community bankster terrorism. Listen at Spotify,

Johnny Gandelsman – Bach: The Complete Sonatas and Partitas
It took the great Brooklyn Rider and Knights violinist eight years to finish recording this astonishingly dynamic album. The physicality, lithely dancing quality and Gandelsman’s signature, silken legato help explain why it soared to the top of the classical music charts. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

The BC 35 compilation
In January of 2016, legendary producer and dark rock icon Martin Bisi held a marathon weekend session to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the revered Gowanus recording room, BC Studios, which he’d started while still in his teens. Many of the edgy rock acts he’s worked with since the 80s are featured on this vast collection of gothic, industrial, metalish and folk noir acts. Most notable is the first recording by 80s noiserock legends Live Skull. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

The Coolerators – Diggin’ Bones
Australian soprano saxophonist Phillip Johnston leads this moody, carnivalesque, utterly individualistic  Monk-inspired organ jazz trio. Organist Alister Spence contributes deliciously smoky, Greg Lewis-tinged playing. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Mary Halvorson and Robbie Lee – Seed Triangular
The third and final Mary Halvorson project here is an acoustic-electric duo record with the brilliant, unpredictable guitarist playing vintage 18th century models in addition to her trusty electric, alongside multi-instrumentalist Lee. Pastoral jazz never sounded so unsettling and enigmatic. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Cliff Westfall – Baby You Win
If Elvis Costello had made an album of original country songs, it would have sounded something like this. The country crooner and songwriter writes period-perfect, aphoristic honkytonk and Nashville gothic tunes, spiced with lead guitarist Scott Metzger’s ferocious solos. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Jessie Kilguss – The Fastness
The title is a North Atlantic term for secret hideaway. The lustrous, soaring folk noir singer leads a concise, purposeful band through this brooding mix of rainy-day tableaux, new wave-tinged tunes and an offhandedly savage murder ballad. Listen at Spotify,

Amy Rigby – The Old Guys
Elvis Costello-class wordplay; broodingly silken Skeeter Davis-class vocals and a deeper drift into psychedelia than ever before from one of the most brilliant, hilarious, relevant tunesmiths of the past 25 years. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Edward Rogers – TV Generation
One of the world’s great voices in retro Britrock turns a withering eye on surveillance state fascism in this mix of artsy rock, spare acoustic ballads and Bowie-esque glam. Listen at Spotify,

Jen Shyu – Song of Silver Geese
A lavish, surreal, atmospherically haunting suite by the pan-Asian jazz multi-instrumentalist-singer. The nonlinear narrative follows the trail of the spirits of several friends, very young and somewhat older, whom Shyu recently lost. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Sleep  – The Sciences
Heavy psych album of the year. Who knew that these icons of doom metal would be completely undiminished – and surprisingly upbeat, and more psychedelic than ever – 25 years after they picked up where Black Sabbath left off. Listen at Spotify,

The Arcane Insignia – A Flawed Design
An all-acoustic string band playing vintage 70s style art-rock. Imagine ELO’s first album beefed up by an entire symphony orchestra, playing classic Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. After awhile it’s hard to figure out where one song ends and another begins, but it’s a hell of a song. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

The Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices – BooCheeMish
Dead Can Dance’s Lisa Gerrard and others from the rock world guest on the renowned Bulgarian women’s choir in this surprisingly upbeat mix of otherworldly, chromatically charged folk themes and originals in the same vein. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Jazz Piano Icon Satoko Fujii Launches Her Ambitious 2018 Album-a-Month Project

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.

Where does this rank in the immense Fujii catalog (over eighty albums)? Probably in the top ten, alongside her magical, mordant duo album with fellow pianist Myra Melford, for example.

Now where can you find this magical album…other than a Soundcloud page? Stay tuned!