Satoko Fujii Quartet

Angelona
Libra 204-014

Developing a career as a lauded jazz pianist and big-band composer/arranger doesn’t appear to be enough for Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii. Flitting between Tokyo and New York, Fujii, and her partners and husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, have made a point of involving themselves in projects ranging from traditional acoustic combos to electronica-tinged one-on-one duets – she has even recorded on the synthesizer and the accordion.

Angelona is her fourth outing with this quartet and there’s still something off-putting about it. Essentially the band is made up of Fujii and Tamura, who may be eclectic, but very much come from the jazz-improv world, and an odd couple of unreformed rockers. Drummer Tatsuya Yoshida is one-half of industrial noise band The Ruins and electric bassist Takeharu Hayakawa, plays R&B as well as improv.

Although evaluating the two rhythm players in a similar fashion to subtler improvisers such as drummer Aaron Alexander and bassist Mark Dresser who also play with the trumpeter and pianist is like comparing sushi and T-bone steaks, Hayakawa and especially Yoshida seem to require repetitive uniformity in their playing. On the six Fujii compositions performed here, they appear to have worked out a template which they apply to each track, merely varying the tempo. A practitioner of funk-styled thumb pops and Hendrixian flanged tone when given space, the bassist at least relates to jazz time. Wedded to bombastic ruffs and rebounds plus a heavy backbeat, Yoshida hardly seems to be on communicating terms with his cymbal, let along the complex counter rhythms jazzers prefer.

But this isn’t really a jazz record. Episodic, the defining track is the almost 13½-minute “Collage – in the Night”. With as many disparate variations as a formal sonata, this nocturne begins with Fujii chording impressionistically, though Yoshida cross-sticking accompaniment is more percussive than contemplative. Tamura’s pitch-sliding theme statement unrolls on top of an undulating ostinato from the pianist until his bright, emotion-choked lines explode into a flurry of triplets. Moving from skittering over the keys, Fujii dissipate the tension with a gentling pattern of descending modulations shadowed by pumping reverb from the bassist. A concluding leitmotif mixes almost heraldic trumpet with rock-solid drum beats.

Variations of the strategy abound with Tamura’s swaggering trumpet lines encompassing plunger work, muted rubato excursions plus a capella growls and sucks making a place for themselves and Fujii’s pitter-pattering and determined modal excursions among the popping bass lines and shuffle beats from the drummer. Out of place outside of an arena rock setting Yoshida’s extended drum solos drag. When they take place, the pianist often resorts to guitar-like arpeggios and scooping low notes from the piano’s bowls to restore equilibrium.

Layered polytonal key excursions characterize “Cicada”, the set’s other memorable composition. Another Tamura showpiece, his soloing begins with hushed frog rivets at the beginning, ends with wheezy whines and rebounds from lonely bugle-like calls to pitch resonation in the middle section. Around him Fujii octave jumps and voices speedy tremolo notes that turns to glissandi key sweeps and eventually agitato cross-handed overtones. Engaged in a sonic hide-and-seek diversion with the rhythm section, the pianist pushes the theme to its climax, avoiding overdone, corrosive drum beats and unvarying rock-style excursions from the bassist.

Proof of Fujii’s – and by extension Tamura’s – versatility, if not their sensitivity, Angelona meets its minor goals. But it’s no match for the pianist acoustic trio or big band work.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. An Alligator in Your Wallet 2. Collage – in the Night 3. A Poor Sailor 4. A Journey into the West 5. Cicada 6. A Brick House

Personnel: Natsuki Tamura (trumpet); Satoko Fujii (piano); Takeharu Hayakawa (electric bass); Tatsuya Yoshida (drums)

In MusicWorks Issue #96