January 1, 2018
Satoko Fujii Orchestra Tokyo
Libra Records 217-039
Stefan Schultze Large Ensemble
Ted the Bellhop
Why Play Jazz RS 033
Despite the hardships and hassles involved organizing, rehearsing and writing for a big band, many composers still put up with these inconveniences and uncertainty in order to have their ideas expressed in a wider, more vibrant forum. It’s how most would prefer watching a film on a wide-screen than on a smartphone. At the same time while almost all of these orchestras exist on a semi-regular basis their aims differ according to the leader’s ideas.
Berlin-based composer/arranger Stefan Schultze, for instance imagines the harmonies and solo work he gets from his 18-member ensemble as a way to uniquely musically describe the stories behind his compositions. In a similar fashion to how Ted, the Bellhop in the 1995 film Four Rooms film recounted his experiences. Schultze, who teaches jazz at Weimer’s Franz Liszt Academy of Music as well as conducting master classes and workshops through Germany, architecturally organizes his pieces for maximal efficiency. Like the late British composer/arranger Graham Collier, he sees this orchestral work as something to be dispassionately organized to reveal certain tropes. Someone who organizes orchestras the way others collect vintage cars, pianist Satoko Fujii has already helmed big bands in New York, Berlin, Kyoto and another in Tokyo. Unlike Schultze, her chief musical statements deal with emotional expression and she categorizing these emotions according to their individual musical concepts is the challenge for the 17 members of Orchestra Tokyo. Interesting enough neither Schultze nor Fujii plays on their discs, although she conducts.
Perhaps one clue to Schultze’s formalist approach is that individual musicians’ instruments aren’t listed on the CD sleeve. Identification below is from searching on-line sources. This may appear somewhat heavy handed for improvised music designed to express as many colors as possible. Besides failing to acknowledge which reed is being played, drummer Daniel Schröteler, who for better or worse, is all over the session is blandly only identified as being part of a group of other “rhythm” players. Oddly enough too, as he was on the band’s previous CD as well, the only soloist to be noted by name and instrument is sheng player Wu Wei on “Skala 55”. While his virtuosity on the Chinese mouth-blown free reed instrument is notable, sounding at times as if he’s playing an EWI, his high-pitched, buzzy cascades only make sense in the context of the foot-tapping piece itself. Baritone saxophonist Heiko Bidmon brings the same energy parceled out as bar-walking-like funk to “Blues Lee”, a shuffle whose Rock-like vamp comes via Schröteler’s pounding, while trumpeter Volker Deglmann shows off his ability to negotiate in the Maynard Ferguson brass stratosphere on the title tune. Meantime, some of the writing on other tracks is even more stylized. It’s perfectly played but low energy material that could have been transferred into a 1950s Jazz-Dance-Noir soundtrack.
“The Morning After” is the one track that’s spun out in sonic Technicolor however. Alto saxophonist Charlotte Greve plays a soulful solo with different orchestral sections vamping behind him. Including vocal exhortation, her work even manages to replicate the preacher and congregation call and response of an American Baptist church service. With the melody repeated by other sections and a crescendo including flying drum notes, excitement is maintained.
Fujii’s heart-on-sleeve emotionalism is more overtly expressed – two tunes salute a guitarist friend who recently died – but this empathy encompasses members of the Ensemble, who are not only identified by name and instrument, but given prominent solo space, even if their atonal exploration sometimes don’t slickly fit within the compositional framework. The extended “2014”, which opens the disc for instance, manages to leave ample room for crying and air-leaking blusters from trumpeter Christian Pruvost in tandem with pulsating wumps from drummer Peter Orins, followed by watery speaking-in-tongues dialogues from trombonist Yasuyuki Takahashi, until the rest of the band kicks in. As the players roller coaster through the melody they swing and strut with the same sophistication as they move into dissonant theme, never sacrificing one for the other. Drum lick trading from Orins and Akira Horikoshi resonate without turning to showboating. They may be battling, but for the group’s cause. The showdown then leads to more reed and brass interjections by other band members, including some yodeling reed tones from tenor saxophonist Kenichi Matsumoto. The lick and vamp trading continues only to wrap up in a mellow coda of slapping spiccato from bassist Toshiki Nagata. While none of the other tunes reach that epic, almost 33-minute length, others show the band can express many moods. “Beguine Nummer Eins”, for instance, is a simple, dance-like number propelled by soprano saxophone flutter tonguing and expressive trumpeting; while “Jasper”, composed by and featuring trumpeter Natsuki Tamura is miniature tone poem with Tamura’s spits and snarl reaching alphorn-like reverberation.
Saluting the departed guitarist, the title tine attaches an introduction that is all Ecstatic Jazz saxophone honks, trumpet screeches, string evacuation and brittle drumming into an a cappela baritone sax bellow from Ryuichi Yoshida. Also included are sequential instrumental tributes that in the case of alto saxophonist Kunihiro Izumi move so past what he can express even in altissimo mode, that he stats yelling out loud.
Following clichés, one should never expect any of the German musicians to be as emotionally expressive as Izumi, or Fujii’s writing is on this discs. But with both composers masters of formal construction, perhaps the Wahlberliner could look at the work of Fujii, who has since relocated from the German capital to Tokyo, as an example of how to loosen up.
Track Listing: Peace: 1. 2014 2. Jasper 3. Peace 4. Beguine Nummer Eins
Personnel: Peace: Christian Pruvost, Natsuki Tamura, Yoshihito Fukumoto, Takao Watanabe, Yusaku Shirotani (trumpets); Haguregumo Nagamatsu, Yasuyuki Takahashi, Toshihiro Koike (trombones); Sachi Hayasaka (soprano and alto saxophones); Kunihiro Izumi (alto saxophone); Kenichi Matsumoto, Masaya Kimura (tenor saxophone); Ryuichi Yoshida (baritone saxophone); Toshiki Nagata (bass); Akira Horikoshi, Peter Orins (drums) and Satoko Fujii (conductor)
Track Listing: Ted: 1. Ted the Bellhop 2. The Morning After 3. Skala 55* 4. Arkona 5. Fleur Carnivore 6. Blues Lee
Personnel: Ted: Benny Brown, Felix Meyer, Florian Menzel, Volker Deglmann, John-Dennis Renken (trumpets); Simon Harrer, Janning Trumann, Tim Hepburn, Jan Schreiner (trombones); Charlotte Greve (alto saxophone); Heiner Wiberny (alto saxophone, clarinet); Stefan Karl Schmid (tenor and soprano saxophones); , Peter Ehwald (tenor saxophone, flute); Heiko Bidmon (baritone saxophone); Martin Schulte (guitar); Jürgen Friedrichn (piano); Matthias Akeo Nowak (bass), Daniel Schröteler (drums) and Wu Wei (sheng)*