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.