Satoko Fujii’s “Keshin”

FUJII: Busy Day. Dreamer. Keshin. Sparrow Dance. TAMURA: Donten. Three Scenes. Drop / Satoko Fujii, pno; Natsuki Tamura, tpt / Libra Records 102-064

My regular readers know that Satoko Fujii is a free and experimental jazz pianist whose work I sometimes like a lot, sometimes like a little, and in those cases when I don’t review her recordings, don’t like at all. This is because she scatterguns all over the “jazz” spectrum, and I for one completely reject soft, mushy music as jazz and edgy electronics wheezes and magnified scraping sounds as music. But when I like her work, I really like it, and this is one such disc.

I’m a bit baffled, however, by the insistence of jazz artists—sometimes but very rarely, classical artists jump on this bandwagon as well—to become social commentators. All of a sudden over the last few years they seem to have this urge to tell us what to think about just about every topic from politics to social justice, and lately it’s the Coronavirus pandemic that seems to have them in its grip. Perhaps I can alleviate their fears with some actual hard data which I’ve gotten from the CDC (Center for Disease Control), which is the American version of the WHO. Are you ready? Here it is. Only 8.5% of Americans have tested positive for Covid-19, and this includes millions who have no symptoms at all. And only 1.8% of Americans have “died” of Covid-19, a number that includes thousands who actually died from gunshot wounds, being hit by moving vehicles, cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s. (No, I’m not kidding. Just go to the CDC’s website and pull up their data. They’re claiming that people who die of these things are Covid deaths.) Yes, it’s a really serious virus. Yes, some of those who recover have bad lingering effects for weeks or months. But more people catch, and die from, the regular winter flu than from Covid-19.

There, now. Don’t you feel  better already? I know I do. Let’s put some Bunny Berigan on the ol’ CD player and celebrate life!

Once past the liner notes resonating with fear and depression over Covid, however, you’ll discover (perhaps to your amazement) that the first number is a really fun of spontaneously improvised jazz on which Fujii is joined by trumpeter Natsuki Tamura. Although the compositions listed above are grouped by who composed them, the program actually alternates a Fujii piece with ah Tamura piece throughout the set: Busy Day, Donten, Dreamer, Three Scenes, Keshin, Drop and Sparrow Dance.

Busy Day is surely that, with Fujii playing a strong but irregular meter throughout and Tamura jumping in when and where he wants to. And yes, believe it or not, there’s a certain resemblance between Tamura’s playing and that of Berigan, as both are very dramatic trumpeters just bursting with fresh and interesting ideas. On this record, at least, Tamura’s tone sounds very large and full, but of course I have no idea if he could fill a ballroom with his tone the way Berigan did.

By giving Fujii more solo space than himself, however, Tamura gives the impression that she is the “idea generator” while he is the “reactor,” but even so their give-and-take is utterly remarkable. It’s so good, in fact, that it reminds me of the simpatico that exists between free jazz tenor saxist Ivo Perelman and pianist Matthew Shipp, who have made close to a dozen records together, each one seemingly better than the last. I don’t know if Fujii has any plans to continue this working relationship with Tamura, but I would encourage her to do so. It is extremely fruitful.

Tamura’s composition Donten is a slow piece that opens with the pianist rumbling in her sub-contra range while the trumpeter plays nicely-spaced lyrical notes that almost coalesce into a theme. Here, one notes a difference between Tamura and Berigan in that the former does not play a pure legato on his horn. (Berigan, like Louis Armstrong, was all about legato phrasing even in his busiest and most inventive solos.) Nonetheless, his spontaneous improvisations are excellent, especially the first one which he plays a cappella before Fujii joins him on piano, ruminating in and slightly below the mid-range of her instrument. Interestingly, when Fujii plays her extended improvisation, she too is much more lyrical, even tending towards tonality, tempering her usual tendency towards the edgiest kind of free jazz. This is, quite simply, an exquisite track, one that should be listened to a few times in order to glean the numerous subtleties and interactions within.

Fujii’s Dreamer is also a slow piece, lyrical in tempo but built along bitonal lines. It also seems to be constructed of two different lines, one played by the left hand and the other by the right, that sometimes complement each other and sometimes move in different directions. Tamura enters with a very lyrical melody of his own, and here his legato does seem to be finer than in the previous track. He also employs a bit of lip vibrato (yes, a Berigan trademark) and shows us some rich-sounding lower notes as well. His solo becomes gradually more excited and exciting before falling back to those rich low notes with a few buzzes tossed in for color. The duo then indulges in a remarkable two-way improvised dialogue in which it seemed to me that Fujii was pulling, or encouraging, Tamura to continue more in his lower range because she liked what she heard.

Three Scenes begins as a very experimental piece, with Tamura playing high, tight, congested sounds on his trumpet while Fujii played sporadic single notes to begin with. I didn’t really like this very much until the middle section, where Tamura opens up his tone, playing fast, busy, bop-like lines while Fujii makes tracks on the keyboard, followed by a section in which the duo complemented each other in a medium-slow duet of single note phrases.

Indeed, by this time you’ll realize that most of the pieces on this CD are slow ones, albeit interesting and well-improvised. The title track, Keshin, seemed to me the most abstract piece on the set, although Fujii does ground the music in some tonal chords as Tamura expands the harmonic envelope in his solos. Drop is even slower and, to my mind, a bit of a whining piece that, except for their using the idea of playing phrases that “drop” chromatically, doesn’t really congeal for me.

Happily, things pick up in Fujii’s Sparrow Dance, a piece in which a medium-fast, asymmetric meter is subtly propelled by single-note bass lines from Fujii while Tamura improvises in a very jolly but bitonal manner above her. By the 1:56 mark, the tempo has increased and, in its own way, the piece begins to swing. At this point Tamura really takes off, with Fujii slyly playing subtler lines underneath, and when it is her turn to solo she plays again in the middle of the keyboard, using single notes in both hands to create lines that coordinate and lines that pull away from one another. This is good stuff. It would be a real toe-tapper if you only had three feet to tap with because of the complex rhythmic base.

An interesting album, then, one of Fujii’s best in recent years.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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