January 5, 2000
Like many young pianists faced with the looming reflections of giants such as Evans, Tyner, Taylor, Bley and Jarett, Satoko Fujii must confront musical schizophrenia. Should she perform in a fragile, introspective style or let herself be completely free? Unfortunately, it would seem that small group and solo work brings out her quiet side, which isn't all that distinctive.
That's why this album plays to her strengths. Working as part of a 15-piece ensemble, the pianist, who divides her time between New York and Japan, is able to become just one part of the mix, leaving the stronger statements to more extroverted players. More tellingly, she wrote six of the eight compositions. And the pulsating big band writing, built on ascending motifs, belies the delicacy of some of her solo work.
One person who won't be accused of delicacy is her husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, who likely takes most of the trumpet solos. It's probably him who provides the aggressive push on tunes such as "Reminiscence" and "Kyu", as well as the slower section and pseudo bugle calls on "Sola".
A strong rhythmic pulse is maintained by drummer Aaron Alexander and Stomu Takeishi, who seems to be playing electric bass most of the time. Together with baritone saxophonist Mike Sim, they give the frequently atmospheric music a good bottom on which to build the solos.
Surprisingly —or perhaps, more tellingly — there's nothing particularly "Oriental" about Fujii's writing or that of Tamura, who was responsible for the other two tunes. Sure, there may be a vague Japanese inflection in the middle section of Tamura's "Okesa-Yansado", that feature heavy emphasis from Alexander and a slippery solo from one of the saxophonists; while "Wakerasuka" balances some single note Cecil Taylor-like keyboard frills with bass riffs, a fleet low-down trombone solo and vocal exhortations from the band that may be in Japanese — but that doesn't make it Asian. Instead the music sounds like modern, big band writing along the lines of Gil Evans or Carla Bley.
And the session seems to be invigorating as well. Some of Fujii's best work may come on "Around The Corner", where subdued inner-piano explorations are backed with shimmering, ascending horn cushions.
The chief weaknesses of this session could perhaps be chalked up to reticence. Many of the tunes, like the child-like "Jasper" never seem to develop and are cut off before they make a statement. And, of course, not identifying the soloists is frustrating, when you don't know, for instance, which reedist is upfront on "Around the Corner".
All and all, though, JO is a solidifying of Fujii's skills, which hopefully will be applied to her next disc in a more intimate context.
Jack Walrath, John Carlson, Dave Ballou, Natsuki Tamura (trumpets); Curtis Hasselbring, Joe Fiedler, Joey Sellers (trombone); Oscar Noriega (alto saxophone, bass clarinet), Briggan Krauss (alto saxophone), Chris Speed (tenor saxophone, clarinet); David Castiglione (tenor and soprano saxophones); Mike Sim (baritone saxophone); Fujii (piano); Stomu Takeishi (bass); Aaron Alexander (drums)