March 5, 2013
By Ken Waxman
“All projects have their own stories and I now have more than 60 stories I can tell,” explains pianist/composer/bandleader Satoko Fujii when asked about her recording career. Luckily more than 32 of these stories are available from Tokyo-based Libra records, a label she and her husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, founded in 1996. Although the highly praised pianist and trumpeter occasionally record for other imprints, Libra reflects her most personal projects, including duets and trios with Tamura and other Japanese and Western musicians, solo projects, records by her New York and Japanese big bands, her avant-rock-free jazz combo and a quartet in which she plays accordion.
Although by the early ‘90s, Fujii, who attended both the Berklee College of Music and Boston’s New England Conservatory, and Tamura, who had been a member of Toshiyuki Miyama’s New Herd Orchestra, one of Japan’s best-known jazz bands, had extensive recording experience, “the biggest reason we started this label was that we got tired of looking for labels that would release our recordings,” she reveals. At that time most record companies had certain fixed ideas of how jazz sessions should sound – and look. She recalls one firm that suggested for promotion she wear a certain fancy dress and surround herself with “good looking guys as sidemen.”
In contrast Libra is a small operation that usually presses 1,000 copies of each release, with tasteful CD covers designed by Masako Tanaka. To devote full attention to the music, Fujii produces Tamara’s CDs and he produces hers. Additionally sessions recorded in NYC are done at Brooklyn’s System Two studio because Fujii likes its piano. Business dealings are straightforward as well. For a project under Fujii’s or Tamura’s leadership, they hire the musicians and pay all expenses. For other CDs, such as Under the Water, her duo piano record with Myra Melford or Rafale with French musicians who helped compose the repertoire, costs are shared and profits divided accordingly.
Too small to have any other employees, the DIY-ethos extends to CD distribution. Available from a variety of distributors in Japan, Europe and the US, plus its own Web site, Libra is officially located in Tokyo because that’s where a close friend of Fujii’s has the key to a small warehouse and can send out requested discs.
Named Libra for Fujji’s astrological sign “Natsuki is Leo and as you know there is a Leo label already,” she jokes, the imprint’s idiosyncrasies extend to its numbering system. “The first three numbers tell whose project it is and how big the band is, and the last three numbers are continuous,” Fujii notes. “For example: Satoko Fujii Orchestra Tokyo, Zakopane is Libra 216-027; 2 means a Satoko’s project – Natsuki’s project is a 1– 16 means there are 16 musicians in the band; and 027 means this is the 27th Libra CD.”
There are further numerical changes if a CD is re-pressed, such as Something About Water, Libra’s first session which features Fujii and Paul Bley. But with the market for CDs shrinking, plans for re-pressing other CDs have been put aside so that new ones can be recorded, she admits. At this point Vulcan is probably the label’s best seller. It features the trumpet and pianist with two Japanese rock musicians, including bassist Tatsuya Yoshida of The Ruins. All Libra CDs can be downloaded from iTunes, and while there are yet no Libra LPs, “we’d love to do one,” says Fujii.
Other well-received Libra CDs include discs made with Fujii’s American trio of drummer Jim Black and bassist Mark Dresser. “I admire Satoko as a person and musician and would be happy to perform or record with her again,” notes Dresser. “She has fantastic performance energy, a great ear, a musical fearlessness that allows her to travel into new territories, has an amazing work ethic and is constantly building bridges. Her label is dedicated to releasing her various projects which make it part of a long tradition of improviser/composer/performers self-producing.”
Although the pianist tells most of her stories via Libra, she won’t turn down the opportunity to work with other labels. “If we find a label that loves our music and that we can trust”, she avers. For instance the newest disc by her Ma-do ensemble is on Poland’s NotTwo imprint. Another departure was Kaze’s Rafale, put out in 2011 by Libra and Circum-Disc, the label of the Muzzix musicians’ collective, based in Lille, France. Kaze consists of Fujii, Tamara plus two French musicians: drummer Peter Orins and trumpeter Christian Pruvost.
“The most important fact about Libra and Circum is that both record companies are headed by musicians, so there’s passion in the way things are done and freedom that we don’t find elsewhere,” explains Orins. “Nowadays musicians almost always lead their project from the beginning to the release, so I think that running our own record company lets us manage the way we want to do it. Working with Satoko is one of the simplest musical experiences I know. Even if the music we make is highly elaborate and purposeful, the way we do it is very natural and without pressure. We simply play while being very focused on one another.”
While Fujii and Tamara do record for other imprints, so far Libra’s only CD under someone else’s leadership is 2004’s Yamabuki by Japanese vocalist Koh. “She is so amazing, that I wanted to introduce her from Libra,” the pianist says. Fujii also played on the session and composed some of the material. However Koh’s CD remains an anomaly. “Sometimes we get e-mails from musicians we don’t know asking if Libra can put out their CDs,” Fujii states. “But we don't have enough time and money for that. However if in the future we find someone we would like to record like Koh we’ll do so.”
But they may be too busy. Already planned for Libra’s 2013 schedule, are new solo discs by both Fujii and Tamara, another Kaze CD plus a new recording by Fujii’s New York orchestra.
—For The New York City Jazz Record March 2013