April Shower
Ewe Records EWCC 0006

Ewe Records EWCD-0034

One of the dangers in analyzing the efforts of any non-North American improviser is expecting to find explicit references to his or her culture in the music.

Sure some creators introduce scraps of so-called native sounds into their creations — Italians, South Africans and some Latin Americans are particularly good at that — but that doesn’t mean that every foreign musicians wants to do the same thing. Which gets us to the work of pianist/composer Satoko Fujii.

Unlike someone like pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi, for instance, who despite having lived in the United States since 1956, uses Japanese sounds, instruments and references in writing for her big band, Fujii is a citizen of the larger improv world. In truth, her compositions and improvisations have no more to do with Japan than, say, saxophonist Ivo Perelman’s pieces reflect his native Brazil or violinist Phil Wachsmann’s playing references his Ugandan homeland.

Fujii performs in a wide variety of contexts, including her New York and Tokyo-based big bands, a quartet, and in the duo and trio represented here. Additionally, although she often flys back and forth from the archipelago to the United States the way some musicians commute through the Holland tunnel, her work is more easily linked to the POMO gestalt that include jazz and classical music than anything Oriental.

A classical piano student from the age of four until she was 20 and subsequently trained at both the Berklee School of Music and the New England Conservatory, the CDs highlight the split between her real musical history. The duet with violinist Mark Feldman could be heard as her classical-improv session, while JUNCTION, the fourth CD she’s recorded with rock-solid bassist Mark Dresser and resourceful drummer Jim Black, is her jazz disc.

Talk about background influences. Feldman, as a studio musician in Nashville and New York, recorded with folks as disparate as pop stylists Diana Ross and Carole King plus country icons Johnny Cash, George Jones and Tammy Wynette. Later, as an improviser, he was part of John Zorn’s Bar Kokhba string group, the Arcado String Trio, wrote for the Kronos Quartet and played and wrote for Cologne’s WDR Big Band, among many other gig.

Neither Klezmer, pop nor country music makes an appearance on APRIL SHOWER, which in instrumentation and intent instead comes across as a slightly skewed chamber musical recital. Not only that, but the violinist is only present on seven — albeit the longest — tracks. Four others are short piano solos and four feature Fujii overdubbing her work on two different pianos.

Spartan, rigid and ponderous, Fujii seems to be dragging her feet during the solo interludes, whether she’s using the piano pedals or not. Probably reminiscent of her classical recitals, she often seems to be giving all the notes the same temperament and the sound is a bit too clunky to really qualify as improv.

By the same token her overdubbing isn’t going to cause Lennie Tristano or Bill Evans to rise from their respective graves. One of the overdubbed Satoko’s always appears to be playing percussive prepared pitches, which is sometimes so tinny that it sounds like a music box. The “other”, on “Gnome”, for example, leans more towards TV cop show theme music than out-and-out swing. Harmonically she seems to have reached a little too far over those 176 keys.

The duo tracks are better, but still uncomfortably prim. On “Then I met you”, for example, despite the title, romance seems to have leeched from the tune. Instead it appears to be put together in blocks, with Fujii often playing in a weepy 19th century style, and Feldman staying true to the stiff recital feeling by highlighting his sustained bass pizzicato. Other tracks seem to depend on a back-and-forth formula of soft-soft, loud-loud, soft-soft.

Only on “Nice talking to you” do any sparks fly. Feldman arches a free-flowing melody at the top of his instrument’s range, while Fujii bashes away at the bottom end of the piano. Constant forward motion then characterizes her playing as she glides across the keys then rolls phrases out of the bass.

Things go much better on the trio disc. Firmly in the land of Jazz, or at least its modern variation, the pianist abandoned her formal prissiness and digs into the music, power chording in some places and elsewhere creating toy piano and prepared piano sounds. Confident enough after all this time with them, she also gives her sidemen enough leeway to do what they do best. Most of the time, Dresser is able to make his presence felt by powerfully suggesting shapes and rhythms without often moving to the foreground. On the other hand, Black, who is usually as resourceful as he is active, constantly finds different parts of his kit to emphasize, depending on the shape and slope of the composition.

“Ninepin”, for example, which begins with what sounds like a kids’ water fight between Black manipulating a pianica — a plastic mini keyboard — and Fujii’s husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamara — in his one appearance — tooting a melodica — soon resolves itself as a cool, West Coast-style swinger. Sticking mostly to the piano’s mid-range, Fujii

advances some expansive theme variations in a romantic manner that suggests Bill Evans in cinemascope. Throughout, the bassist makes sure to keep everyone on the straight and narrow.

In contrast, “Eel” is as slinky as its title suggests. Early on, Black unleashes a mini drum solo, sabotaging the rhythm with grating cymbals and snare blows to turn what appeared to begin a cocktail ballad with bass accompaniment into something unraveling at a breakneck tempo. The tune accelerates as the pianist picks up the beat and showcases similar theme patterns at many different volumes and pitches. Continuing to roll around his kit like a child in a playpen, the drummer pushes Fujii up the stairsteps of invention to some of her quirkiest soloing on record.

Pure strength characterizes “The future of the past”, the enigmatically titled final tune. Ostensibly a simple jazzy theme, it too is whipped into frenzy with Black punishing his kit, Dresser furiously bowing, and an impassioned Fujii producing menacing, rumbling chords.

With the drummer alternately hammering like a blacksmith or somehow producing a lighter-than-air cymbal screech and the bassist making arco forays into what sounds like violin-range, the pianist confines herself to the odd plink and plunk, then two-handed bass explorations. Suddenly in the penultimate minutes, pizzicato bass reintroduces the major theme, which is revealed to be a POMO hand clapper. It lopes along at this tempo as Black projects a lesson in maintaining a beat without pulverizing it, until the piece subsides into some serene key strokes and the rumble of the bass.

More examples of Fujii’s versatility, neither of these discs can be faulted. But for the more exciting experience, three musicians add up to a lot more than two.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: April: 1. April shower 2. Mirage 3. Inference 4. After you have gone 5. Then I met you 6. In the morning 7. In parenthesis 8. I know you don't know 9. The snow was falling slowly 10. Gnome 11. Nice talking to you 12. Behind the notes 13. A strange piece of news 14. Right before you found it 15.White sky

Personnel: April: Satoko Fujii (piano, overdubbed piano); Mark Feldman (violin)

Track Listing: Junction: 1. Junction 2. Go on foot 3. He is very suspicious 4. Ninepin* 5. Humoresqueak 6. Eel 7. Caret 8. The future of the past

Personnel: Junction: Satoko Fujii (piano); Mark Dresser (bass); Jim Black (drums, pianica*); Natsuki Tamura (melodica*)