There is a place in the mountains where the sage I. M. Pei built the Miho Museum. I journeyed there with Paul Winter four years ago. I am reminded of that place of exquisite beauty when I play Natsuki Tamura and Satoko Fujii’s album Chun. The music is vastly different from Paul Winter’s music, but “Ultraviolet” and “Spiral Staircase”—songs from that album take me to a place of immense bliss. On both charts, I discern piano and trumpet, but I am not sure that many would. It is not that I am special, but that I have been taken into a state of grace by the charts that preceded this music. Playing the piano, Ms. Fujii sounds as if she were wielding a thick brush which with every swish of her fingers and hands that brush was meandering on rice paper, painting ideograms which ultimately unlock a gigantic gate that bars me from the mountains. I descend down the “Spiral Staircase” and suddenly I am lost in a meadow where a myriad samurai are on horseback riding through a valley in Miho. I see them but only in a blur. Natsuki Tamura mimics the flared nostrils of the horses and these warriors as the sun glints on the steel of their blades that move down swiftly cutting me in half—s if cutting me off from my past and showing me only the way to the future. I am born anew. I lick my wounds and the blood dissipates. I am suddenly confronted by a joyful song and it is the same pianist and the same trumpeter, which does not surprise me at all. I welcomed them when the samurai came and now I welcome them as I am made whole again by the music that sliced me in two. Now I am spliced and the impediments that were holding me back have disappeared as well. I always knew that music was therapeutic, but never experienced it in this manner—not for a long time and since I heard Beethoven’s Eroica by Wilhelm Fürtwangler and the Berlin Philharmonic of 1942; not since Von Karajan’s 1960 version of Beethoven’s Ninth and final Symphony; not since I heard Martha Argerich playing Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuit”. And now this! Listening to Satoko Fujii and Natsuki Tamura, I am elated as a child. This music also restores my soul in the manner in which Albert Ayler’s does. And although I am alone, I fear nothing as I am made whole from bits of broken glass surrounding the edges of my soul. Such is the power of “Triangle”.
Long before Spike Jonze created Her for Joaquin Phoenix, the couple—Satoko Fujii and Natsuki Tamura created “Computer Virus” a dire warning to those who wanted to use electronics in music. Or perhaps it was what they felt them. But that song could not be ignored. It was humorous, no doubt, but it was a slanted swipe at the use of electronics no doubt; a thumbing of the nose. The couple was attempting humour, but this was a sign that they might not be taking that road, frequently travelled for some time. Ms. Fujii and Mr. Tamura eschew electronics, to a large degree. But that is not to say that they do not experiment with sound. Ms. Fujii may have single-handedly extended the range of the piano with her hammering of the keys, and her plucking of the strings. Many pianists use that device—for it can only be that at the end of the day, for most pianists—to extend the range of an instrument that is largely hammered to one that is hammered and strummed and plucked as in a gigantic zither or even a lute. Ms. Fujii plays it by sometimes painting broad strokes on the keyboard, then adding colours and a myriad of hues as she strums the copper wires stretched taut within the frame. She then adds additional colours by hammering the strings with her with her fists and even bowing her instrument. In doing sometimes all of the above in a single set of actions, Ms. Fujii creates the sound of a veritable orchestra; a panacea of sounds that when heard strike chords in the heart and healing it from the ailments that plague an organ assaulted by the hopelessness of the world. This remarkable thing happened when the earthquake and resulting tsunami destroyed the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant almost destroyed a great swathe of land in the Japan’s northeast. Satoko Fujii and Natsuki Tamura were affected when members of their family were believed to have been affected in that disaster. It was then the music, when they started playing again, sounded as if the musicians had experienced a sense of mortality once again. Japanese routinely stay in touch—in ways that surprise westerners—with their mortal selves; some change their names after elaborate Shinto rituals. This musical couple remained what they were before in terms of nomenclature, but their music changed. It became more hurried and incorporated a sense of urgency; almost as if they had come face to face with mortality. This is what Ms. Fujii seems to be capturing when she beats upon the keys; then hammers the strings and plucks them when she can. And Natsuki Tamura sounds forlorn as he sounds the trumpet, often sounding as if he were playing the last post solo, yet in a trio setting or even in a faraway duet with his wife. It is also how they were affected when they heard of the loss of their phenomenal bassist and friend Norikatsu Koreyasu.
Cloudy Then Sunny from 2008 is a trio session, with Natsuki Tamura on trumpet, Satoko Fujii on piano and John Hollenbeck on percussion. The dynamic here is very different. In the beginning there is a sense that Mr. Hollenbeck must earn his entry into what seems a tight duo. I am often, through this album, reminded that perhaps the husband and wife have given the drummer a golden key with which he must unlock an arc containing the apothecary’s magic potion that will enable him to enter into a charmed circle. He music drink whatever it is that potion is just as Alice did in Wonderland and then having been adjusted to size he will fit into the circle. Of course the great drummer is up to the task, but then he has to navigate the maze of complex music that settles upon him like a web in a bestiary. What then becomes of the music is a spectacular journey through what seems like the castle of Gormenghast, that magnificent edifice created by the poet and writer Mervyn Peake. Or, more appropriately, John Hollenbeck must don a Noh mask. Now his persona is no longer the drummer who descended from New York. He must be Tsure the follower of the hero. And neither Mr. Tamura nor Ms. Fujii must remain shy in this regard. They are Shite, the hero or chief character. Both, or should I say, all three must entwine in the dramaturgy prescribed by an elaborately designed Noh play. This is how he characters must enact the drama that plays out in the chart “Chilly Wind”. The palpitations played on keyboards and strings and with brushes on drums form the beating heart of Natsuki Tamura’s trumpet as he lives and breathes his life into hat character that he and Satoko Fujii have created. John Hollenbeck is quick on the uptake and he pursues them until he has drunk from the same well and is satiated and becomes truly the Tsure. The grotesque masks and personae that unfold on this album are many and feel like a bestiary that has escaped from the book written by Jorge Luis Borges. Miniature episodes from the grotesque play come to light and I am astounded by the mangles beauty of “Opera by Rats” and “Alligators Running in the Sewers”. But something also strike me the way Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, the Japanese version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth unfolded when Toshiro Mifune ran amok and was showered in his madness, with arrows. This is “Soldier’s Depression”. Here is a chart that is key to Japanese ethos even today. The atomic strike on Hiroshima and Nagasaki will never be undone, let alone forgotten and no matter how much whiskey or saki is drunk to numb the brain, one part of it will always remember or try to recall that which went down after Pearl Harbour. War and its pain is so much a part of the Japanese ethos and as such I see it re-appear, time and time again in the music of Satoko Fujii and Natsuki Tamura. To the Western mind the trauma is only partially mind-numbing. But John Hollenbeck feels it eventually. He too recalls how many Native Americans were scalped in the history of his own country. Junk Box is not the only trio formed by Satoko Fujii and Natsuki Tamura.
Satoko Fujii once had a trio with Mark Dresser on bass and Jim Black on drums. Although they were a different sounding trio; very exciting and full of surprise in terms of Noh the characters were different and the relationships still called for a dramatic development between the musicians as their relationship evolved. Together this trio released eight recordings from 1997’s Looking out of the Window to Kitsune-bi (1999); Toward TO WEST (2000); Junction (2001); Bell the Cat (2002), Illusion Suite (2004); and Trace a River (2008). As always the music was dramatic, shocking and still very beautiful. In fact I would go as far as to say that some of these albums produced by this trio were among the most exquisite and difficult ever produced by the pianist. But the trio survived long and always excellent in interpreting Ms. Fujii’s extraordinary music. This was not so much for the genius of bassist and drummer, but for the fact that they gave completely of themselves, something every musician must in a group setting, but even more so if you just happen to be playing either with Satoko Fujii and or Natsuki Tamura. This has nothing to do with personalities. Ms. Fujii is eminently accessible and I speak from personal experience; she is something else as a pianist as is the trumpeter, Natsuki Tamura. In the musical relationship chrysanthemum makes way for the samurai’s sword of steel. If this is hard to believe ask Mark Dresser or John Hollenbeck. Better still, listen to “Soldier’s Depression” with John Hollenbeck on Cloudy then Sunny and let the drama unfold.
Satoko Fujii has a majestic technique. Her virtuosity is beyond reproach, but she rarely, if at all, puts virtuosity on display. Instead she focusses on expression and the exposition of human emotions. Technique also gets put away when this is the modus operandi on the piano. It means also means that Ms. Fujii is baring her soul for all to see and hear. This is the most difficult part of being a musician for her. It means that her Zen-like personality must be given a break and she must be forgiven for taking leave of what really drives her culturally. This is, in essence, being contained and self-effacing; almost suppressing the self so that the significant other might shine. The anomaly here is that Ms. Fujii has much to say and she will not be denied. When she plays solo or when she is playing alone, with Natsuki Tamura, a different self shows up. Ms. Fujii is then vulnerable and sometimes even melancholic. This elemental sadness is what drives “Cloudy, then Sunny”. The pain of the protagonists sometimes reaches unbearable proportions as Satoko Fujii and Natsuki Tamura exchange phrases and lined, until in the climax of the song, the feelings are so overpowering that Mr. Tamura almost breaks down as he wails and croaks via open belled instrument.