Illusion Suite
Libra 203-009

Sixth chapter of the ongoing saga of Japanese-American pianist/composer Satoko Fujii’s American trio, ILLUSION SUITE shows her confidence in working up from the single tune short story to the novella length (34 minutes) with the title track here.

Along the way it not only shows off the skills and techniques of the pianist and her sidemen – bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Jim Black – but suggests this may be the most comfortable setting in which she works. Fujii, whose playing situations range from massive big bands to electric combos featuring a Japanese rhythm section with a strong fusion – heck, rock, orientation – thrives in this acoustic setting.

Proof is the suite itself, which moves through many moods and energies. Dresser, who now teaches at California’s Mills College, is, hands down, one of the most versatile bassists extant. Work with people ranging from reedist Anthony Braxton to drummer Gerry Hemingway confirms this. Black is pliable as well, marking his mark as part of tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin’s trio as well as his own bands.

“Illusion Suite” itself advances from languid, impressionistic variations all the way through to sparse, near-atonal patterning and substantial rhythms, plus everything in between.

Beginning with ride cymbal scratches, fluttering arco poramento from the bassist and single note action from the pianist, the piece soon involves low-frequency cadences from Fujii, hollow rim slaps, bell tree and chain rattling from Black and most spectacularly sul ponticello interludes from Dresser.

Very shortly, when the bass begins walking and the drums play a shuffle beat, Fujii exposes different parts of the soundboard, adopting a fantasia of patterning, strumming chords and double timing for her take on modernistic soloing. Blurred, locked-hand arpeggios then encourage Black to express himself in a solo of perfectly formed ruffs and flams as the pianist and bassist together explore the darker, lower-pitched parts of their instruments.

Repeated, contrasting dynamics on her part cause Black to accelerate his hard snare and tom action, rambling into semi-march time. When Dresser squeals a sul tasto counter melody, Fujii returns to romanticism, except this time the beat seems to come from a beanbag shaken by Black. Following a rhythm rebound, Fujii expostulates a high frequency octave-spanning theme development, stabbing the keys in tremolo action as she references sources as disparate as Cossack dances and gospel hymns.

Reaching final variations on the theme, the suite opens up with a lyrical interface from the pianist and the double stopping bassist, while hard counter rhythms from the drummer echo. Summation posits a reorientation of the initial theme with sparse chording from Fujii, legato bowing from Dresser and irregular pulsing from Black.

Newer short stories to complement the novella, the CD’s subsequent three tracks – all, like the suite, written by the pianist – showcase other techniques. One composition appears to be an abstract contrafact of “Caravan” with Fujii contributing low-frequency turns, Dresser scratchy spiccato line and Black stroking what could be a glass armonioca. “An Insane Scheme”, on the other hand, probably isn’t as far out as its composer thought. But in it she skitters across the keys, replicating half-tango, half-Swing era licks. Black stabs his sticks into his drum tops and along his ride cymbals, as Dresser resonates sul tasto and sul ponticello color.

A true experimenter, Fujii shouldn’t be discouraged from trying out as many different styles with as many different groups as she wishes. But this CD confirms that much of her best work is done in the context of this trio.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Illusion Suite 2. An Irregular Course 3. Flying to the South 4. An Insane Scheme

Personnel: Satoko Fujii (piano); Mark Dresser (bass); Jim Black (drums)