Satoko Fujii & Wadada Leo Smith Weave Their Magic

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ASPIRATIONS / FUJII: Intent. Floating. Aspiration. Evolution. SMITH-TAMURA-FUJII-MORI: Liberation. TAMURA: Stillness / Wadada Leo Smith, Natsuki Tamura, tpt; Satoko Fujii, pno; Ikue Mori, electronics / Libra Records 204-043

Despite the fact that this is the first time these musicians have worked together as a band, Wadada Leo Smith and Ikue Mori had performed together before and thus had a certain kinship and style to bring to this new project by the Japanese-American pianist. This is music-making on a very high level; one might almost say, too high a level for the majority of jazz lovers to grasp; but it’s exactly the kind of album I love the most, not just because it’s edgy and contemporary but because these musicians are masters and know exactly what they’re doing.

I’ve praised Smith twice earlier on this blog and will do so again, every chance that I get. He is surely the greatest “master of space and time,” as they used to say of Leon Russell, active today. His artistry is marked by his wisdom in choosing exactly the right notes at the right time for maximum effect, yet his musical constructions are so logical and developed so brilliantly that they could almost have been written out by a master composer. Fujii’s pianism is both adventurous and elegant; almost lyrical in contrast to the trumpeters’ pungent upper-range playing. This creates a stylistic contrast which works because all of the musicians involved are thinking ahead in a logical way, which makes everything they contribute a valuable part of the whole.

My only regret was that, since their playing mirrored each other so perfectly, I couldn’t always tell when it was Smith playing and when it was Tamura. Yes, I felt that the more adventurous excursions were by Smith and the more lyrical ones by Tamura, but was that a fair assessment? When in the presence of a genius like Smith, everyone’s game is raised a bit. You either rise to his level or fall by the wayside, and this was not a quartet that was willing to give an inch. Just listen, for instance, to Fujii’s ruminating, rumbling piano towards the end of Liberation, a piece for which all four musicians receive co-composer credits. In addition, Tamura has been described by critic Mark Keresman as having “some of the stark, melancholy lyricism of Miles, the bristling rage of late ’60s Freddie Hubbard and a dollop of the extended techniques of Wadada Leo Smith and Lester Bowie.” Thus we have a meeting of peers and possibly equals.

As a free-form jazz album, of course, an exact musical description of each piece is virtually impossible unless one were to sit and analyze every note and each bar, but there is more tonality here than, say, in the music of Ornette Coleman or late-period George Russell. Yet tonality does not equate to banality because there is a great deal of risk-taking going on here. There’s a particularly lovely moment at about the 7:30 mark in Floating where the two trumpeters complement each other in long-held notes, sometimes in harmony, sometimes in unison and sometimes in clashing tonality. I wondered, however, if their chorus in thirds was thought out ahead of time or not. I can’t really imagine that they would suddenly jump into a passage like that without at least some premeditation.

Satoko_Fujii_photoThe title track begins with an extended piano solo by Fujii, showing her as a pianist of considerable charm as well as depth of feeling and imagination. If I say little about electronics player Mori it is because I don’t like electronic music and so would prefer leaving others to discuss what she does here. I personally find her noises obtrusive, but you are free to enjoy her more than I. There only appears to be one trumpeter on Aspiration. Is it Smith or Tamura? Hard to tell, but the playing is outstanding in any case.

Evolution begins with Mori producing what strikes me as very tight and difficult flatulence on her electronics for nearly two minutes. Happily, when the band enters they are playing a lovely tune in F major, following which Mori takes us into outer space for a while. Eventually Fujii enters on piano, playing light bitonal figures, eventually joined by one of the trumpets playing muted. There is a lot of “space” in this piece, making it sound as if it did indeed evolve, and slowly at that.

On the finale, Stillness, Mori produces some really intriguing if somewhat bubbly sounds that put me in mind of an out-of-kilter Theremin. A trumpet (Smith?) plays soft, plaintive notes in and around this for a while, followed by Fujii noodling softly on the keyboard. The trumpets enter one at a time; by this point in the CD, I think I recognized Tamura first and Smith second. Towards the end, it sounds as if Mori is trashing the recording studio.

All in all, a fascinating session displaying the interplay between Fujii and the two trumpeters. Well worth hearing for that!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz


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