Satoko Fujii/Joe Fonda

Long Song Records LSROC 140

Porta Palace Collective

Neuroplastic Groove

Rudi Records RRJ 1031

Strikingly evident most of the time, there appears to be very little pianist/composer Satoko Fujii can’t do when it comes to improvised music. Like an actor who is as comfortable performing in unadorned comedy sketches as lavish costume theatricals, Fujii’s skills, are adaptable to situations ranging from bare-bones solo and duo meditations to group situations, stretching from her own small and big bands to affiliated work with ensembles of many sizes.

Neuroplastic Groove and Duet are two instances of this versatility. The equivalent of cameos by better-known actors in lesser film roles, Fujii and her husband and playing partner, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura slide their sonic contributions in among original tunes pe4rfomed by a seven-member, Turin-based American-Italian band called the Porta Palace Collective (PPC). Recorded the same month, but in Portland, Maine, Duet is just that, a live recording of the second-ever concert featuring the pianist and American bassist Joe Fonda, known for his affiliations with groups like the Nu Band and Conference Call.

Although he wouldn’t die until a couple of months later, Fujii’s initial Western mentor pianist Paul Bley was already terminally ill at the time of this duet. “Paul Bley”, an instant composition by the bassist and pianist that takes up three-quarters of the CD is acutely articulated. Without any attempt at emulation, Fujii and Fonda, who never recorded with Bley, but did work with some of his associates like Carla Bley and Barry Altschul, generically connect to the subtle mixture of low-key romanticism and upfront strength which often popped up like whack-a-mole pins during Bley performances. Forceful even during the most whimsical passages, Fonda’s undulations usually arrive with spark-flying pressure of lumber being shoved against a band saw. At the same time as these rebounds sound from his four strings, the pianist responds in kind with stops and plucks from the piano’s inner string set, with resonations from the capotes and backboard sometimes coming into her playing as well. Additionally both she and Fonda make the most of the wooden properties of their instruments. Evenly matched in staccato variations, like thoroughbreds whose winning gait includes canters as well as gallops, the two also reach unity with less rugged challenges. At junctures harpsichord-sounding hunt-and-peck motions from Fujii are smoothed into a solid, dramatic near idyllic soundscape with Fonda’s wafting bow motion, accompanied at one point by wistful flute whispers.

If these delicate timbres are heard as an anticipatory requiem for Bley, then the second part of the recital confirms the acerbic part of his work. While Fonda jabs and stops his instrument’s strings, the pianist’s playing reveals kinetic textural expansions bordering on the atonal, but luminous enough to suggest hidden melodies beneath the thickened chords. Hard keyboard glissandi and measured string thumps unite into a barbed climax in the track’s penultimate minutes, with simple wistful pluck from a single string of both instruments serving as an appropriate coda.

Tamura adds some renal splutters and growls as obbligatos to the Fonda-Fujii interface on the concluding “JSM”, but his skills are more upfront with the (PPC). If the sonic picture Bley created was sui generis and by some extension monochrome, then the PPC’s sound is the equivalent of a piebald and dappled kaleidoscope. Three of the participants composed two numbers each that reflect the action-painting-like collection of the incalculable number of tints which define their creations. Turin-based trumpeter Johnny Lapio leads the Arcote Project that aims to mix Blues, funk, standards, swing and avant garde impulses into a distinctive whole. Brooklyn-based drummer Jimmy Weinstein has led m many groups over time, one a long-running quartet with Ahmed Abdullah, Alex Harding and Masa Kamaguchi, and has recorded with Fujii and Tamura in the past. His pieces sometime interpolate the wordless vocalizing of his wife, Lilly Santon. Finally Rome-based trombonist Giancarlo Schiaffini exposure goes back to Italy’s earliest Free Jazz experiments in the 1960s, and since then he has built a reputation in improvised and notated New music. The other players are solid bassist Gianmaria Ferrario, Fender Rhodes-colorist Lino Mei and straight-ahead tenor saxophonist Giuseppe Ricupero.

Like a court jester whose japes prevent others from being too whey-faced, but who doesn’t detract from the seriousness of the program, Schiaffini’s “Leaders” take advantage of Tamura’s skill manipulating squeak toys. Affiliated with Donald Duck-like quacks from Lapio, the trombonist’s cracked tailgate burrs, reed slide whistles and conga-like beats, the tune still boasts near-sophisticated swing. The subsequent “Come Se Fosse Autumno” is a Freebop march mixing pomp and circumstance with splashy horn vamps. Midway through, the tempo reaches supersonic heights, as slurping horns and splashing rhythms lead to a climax both funny and fanciful. On “Micro Texture and Low Cluster”, one of Weinstein’s lines, it’s Tamura who is again featured, as he and Lapio assume opposing open-horn scaling or muted smoothing tones to poke some contrapuntal holes into the drummer’s nearly opaque composition, which is otherwise driven by the locomotive skill of Weinstein’s resounding cymbal and shuffle beat. Creative vocalizing from Santon is the necessary leavening agent in “Fantasy”, Weinstein’s other piece, which otherwise threatens to inflate under the orchestral weight of repetative, skywards horn vamps. Luckily her vocal skills and some keyboard comping sifts the heaviest strains from the climatic crescendo before it reaches the point of no return. Santon’s extended laughter plus bust patterning from both keyboardists also add some streamlined atonality to Lapio’s “E Lei Non Disse Molto” similarly preventing it from becoming musically obese. As for the trumpeter’s introductory “Neuroplastic Groove” it appears headed to unsuccessfully emulate the Mikes Davis-Gil Evans reductionist Andalusian groove. Luckily gutbucket trombone lines, wiggling electric piano splashes and acoustic keyboard pounding ensures the result is prismatic not distended.

Like an undercover cop who mingles unnoticed in a gang, Fujii unselfishly takes her place among the other players here. Still her abbreviated interjections contribute to the significance of most of the PPC session just as her balanced playing with Fonda does to Duet.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Neuroplastic: 1. Neuroplastic Groove 2. E Lei Non Disse Molto Altro 3. Fantasy 4. Micro Texture and Low Cluster 5. Leaders 6. Come Se Fosse Autunno

Personnel: Neuroplastic: Johnny Lapio (trumpet, bubble Harmon); Natsuki Tamura (trumpet, Harmon, toys); Giancarlo Schiaffini (trombone); Giuseppe Ricupero (tenor saxophone); Satoko Fujii (piano); Lino Mei (Fender Rhodes); Gianmaria Ferrario (bass); Jimmy Weinstein (drums) and Lilly Santon (voice)

Track Listing: Duet: 1. Paul Bley 2. JSN*

Personnel: Duet: Natsuki Tamura (trumpet)*; Satoko Fujii (piano) and Joe Fonda (bass and flute)