Satoko Fujii & Joe Fonda Play Hip Tunes


Mizu Cover

MIZU / FUJII-FONDA: Rik Bevernage. Long Journey. Mizu / Satoko Fujii, pno; Joe Fonda, bs/fl / Long Song Records (no number)

Unlike other reviewers, I had not heard Fujii and Fonda’s previous album, Duet, but I had heard her on a fascinating album with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith which deeply impressed me. To begin with, the title of this review is meant to be a bit humorous, since although free jazz can indeed be called “hip,” the music produced can scarcely be referred to as “tunes.” Fujii studied with Paul Bley, one of the pioneers of free jazz piano back in the 1960s, while Fonda played from 1984 to 1999 with composer-improviser Anthony Braxton. The music on this CD evolved during a 2017 four-city European tour.

Free jazz at its best simply comes from throwing out a few notes and chords, then exploring them together. It very seldom works with groups larger than a quartet or quintet; Ornette Coleman’s famous “double quartet” recording, titled simply Free Jazz, ended up being quite confused-sounding in places because the two quartets were operating not in tandem with each other but independently (though there were a few really good moments in it). On the opening track, Rik Bevernage, named after the late Belgian concert producer and label owner, the duo shows just how this method of operation works. Both musicians are bold enough to be able to work in an atonal setting, although, to my ears, it is the bassist who “grounds” the music more in tonality by emphasizing specific notes and working around them as a foil to Fujii’s more atonal style. Some of her single-line runs put me in mind of Lennie Tristano at his most advanced, which is not a bad thing. What amazed me was that Fujii never got lost in her work, i.e., she actually develops her themes, building in tension before releasing it; even her wildest keyboard arpeggios and runs fit into an overall scheme. The music, naturally, is difficult to describe in words because what they are doing goes beyond language, but they’re definitely on each others’ wavelength and manage to complement each other while playing very diverse lines. As a bassist-improviser, Fonda seemed to me influenced strongly by the late Charlie Haden, among others. He has a very clear bass tone, making his notes ring out with crystalline purity. As the track progresses, Fonda uses a variety of devices: bowing, sometimes on the edge of the strings to produce an edgier sound, whistle tones, etc. to vary his approach.

Much the same approach is taken in the following two tracks although, ironically, Long Journey isn’t nearly as long a musical journey as the opener, which runs close to a half-hour. Here, Fujii plays mostly rhythmic figures, chorded and solo, while it is Fonda who goes a bit more out on a limb. The title track, Mizu, is by far the most impressionistic, with Fujii playing her piano strings in such a manner that it almost sounds like a gamelan. It is also the most full of effects, mostly rhythmic, without much structure, although Fujii tries to develop what little material there is at the keyboard. The tension builds via a long crescendo, to which Fonda adds some shouts. Fonda then, surprisingly, switches to flute while the pianist sprinkles some chords around his improvised melody.

This music is quite a trip, one well worth taking. It is music of tremendous imagination and power. Not a touch of “soft jazz” or “ambient jazz” in sight!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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