Gen Himmel is a recording, within which I see the soul of Ms. Fujii emerging most strongly. Here we have her solitary voice to contend with. The music is more crepuscular. Instead of the blazing sun that bathes all of the music with its searing light, this time we have the silver light of the moon. It is almost as if a dõka appears through the music harkening to the poems of Tao. Ms. Fujii’s virtuosity shows up in more ways than one: “Behind the technique, know that there/is the spirit (ri)/It is dawning now;/ Open the screen,/and lo, the moonlight is shining in.” Is this the motivic sliver that emerges in the opening movement of “Hesitation”? If so then only Satoko Fujii can let in on the secret. But it behoves me to suggest that I hear the opening of the screen and lo, the moonlight comes streaming in. It is not unusual, nor frightening to sense this spectral nature in Ms. Fujii’s music. The music comes from the soul that is sparked by Shinto and here the ritual of the temple is more often than not carried into the outside world. This is why the experience of Japan is so life defining. I am struck by the peaceful nature of the Japanese to the extent that tension is often supressed in the intensity of work and excessive nature of the pleasure partaken in the night life. But I am also struck by Satoko Fujii’s Zen-like performances when she is alone, with Natsuki Tamura or in the company of others with whom these two musicians choose to share the innermost workings of their souls. “Ram” on this recording is an exquisite example of Ms. Fujii’s Zen-like reticence. There is a mystical spirit at work here; an uncovering of metaphysical aspects of music if you will. It appears as if Ms. Fujii is capturing the very dust of the cosmos as she utters its language so beautifully; the language of music. Elsewhere, on “Dawn Brown” there is, in the rolling cascades of Ms. Fujii’s music, the suggestion of Saigyõ’s runs: “The wind-blown/Smoke of Mount Fuji/Vanishing far away!/Who knows the destiny/Of my thought wafting with it?” Such is the beauty of her playing and even when it gets ponderous, we know that it is Zen at work, for ponderousness is also part of the peace that surpasses all understanding.
“Summer Solstice” is that kind of chart. It brings with it the peace that surpasses all understanding. Its ostinato gradually opens up to include the moonlight in which it opens up. Satoko Fujii often bathes her music in such unadulterated beauty. Often these are longer pieces, such as “Take Right” on this album or such as “Tropical Fish,” which comes from the album entitled Zakopane, which is quite another story and will be dealt with in another part of the narrative as his looks at the demands of playing in larger ensembles and which requires a very different dynamic altogether. But Ms. Fujii sees that as well. Jump back to her solo performance on Gen HImmel. Her fingers dart and scurry across the ebony and ivory keys. It is a sign that Satoko Fujii is freer than when she is in company and why not. Alone with her fertile mind she is another; quite another character in a dramatic interpretation of a Noh play. Here Satoko Fujii makes me jump with the sudden twists and turns of her vaunted hands on the keys. Her performance is almost sacred. Watershed takes another, very different faceted look at Satoko Fujii’s music as well as that of Natsuki Tamura. This is the Min-Yoh Ensemble and Min-Yoh means folk music in Japanese. Appropriately this quartet employs accordion, played by Andrea Parkins, trumpet, which is of course, Natsuki Tamura, and trombone, played by Curtis Hasselbring; in addition to Satoko Fujii on piano. After studying jazz and classical music, Ms. Fujii became interested in Min-Yoh, which means folk music in Japanese. Played by amateurs, collectively arranged by the performers, and beautiful in its simplicity, Min-Yoh held a power unlike any music she had studied and played before. Ms. Fujii gathered together musicians who understood the powerful simplicity and collective spirit of folk music to play her own, personal Min-Yoh. “Takeda No Komoriuta,” “Soranbushi” and “Cascade” are powerful examples of Ms. Fujii’s own Min-Yoh.
The quartet has always been a favourite vehicle for Ms. Fujii. It seems to express all that is compact with her music as well as provides the pianist with the maximum bandwidth to enable her to improvise and create her magnificent whorls of music. After the quartet that included Mark Dresser and Jim Black, Ms. Fujii formed Japanese quartets such as Min-Yoh as well as one that included Natsuki Tamura on trumpet, Hayakawa Takeharu on bass and Tatsuya Yoshida on drums. This quartet was far-reaching and accessible and at its most lyrical, recalled the music of Claude Debussy. Since they first started playing together in 2000, Ms. Fujii’s Avant Quartet hasn’t lost a bit of its genre-smashing energy, vivid color, and tension. This high-powered foursome defies easy definitions of rock or jazz, blasting away simplistic categories with its strong commitment to pure creativity. Finally, Ms. Fujii formed the path-breaking Mah-Doh Quartet with Ms. Fujii on piano, Natsuki Tamura on trumpet, the late Norikatsu Koreyasu on bass and Akira Horikoshi on drums. For a small group, ma-do sounds utterly huge, and that’s a testament not only to Ms. Fujii’s writing and technical skill, but also to her cohorts – swirling and unruly at one moment, deft and wiry the next, punchy and rollicking another, their empathy is truly astounding. Mah-Doh is a significant and enduring band and barely survived the death of its bassist. This band’s name, like it’s music, has many layers. Ma-do means “window” in Japanese. But “ma” also means “the silence between notes.” Satoko Fujii chose the name to show how the music opens to the outside (just like window) and that silence can have more meaning than notes. In an acoustic setting, the group’s absorbing improvisations explore subtle textures and tone colors, using silence and group interaction to build brilliant collages of sound, melody, and rhythm. My yoga helped me come to terms with much of Satoko Fujii’s music, but the adventures of Mah-Doh proved rather mind expanding and its mesmerising pianist forced me to meditate upon its transcendent music. Even though this music was more in line with what might be called the purest Jazz idiom, Ms. Fujii still found a way to metastasize her own personal idiom far beyond the realm of jazz taking its polyphonics over the precipice. Here, the bassist Norikatsu Koreyasu proved to be a very powerful ally and his playing con arco whenever he had the chance enabled the Quartet to push the envelope further than the horizon that the group had come up against in earlier incarnations. This pleased Ms. Fujii and Mr. Tamura as both of them worshipped at the altar of originality.
Natsuki Tamura is also particularly brilliant on Desert Ship (2010) the second of three albums from the Quartet so far. His long and wintering solo on the title song marks him as someone who is almost endlessly creative. Toward the middle of the chart, Mr. Tamura takes over the destiny of the song—commanding the Ship, if you will—and he commandeers that ship to the brink of where the music bends and melds into the outer reaches of jazz. He is ably assisted by Mr. Koreyasu, who plays con arco for extended periods of time and here the bassist shows great technique and masterly virtuosity when playing in this form. His ascent to the upper reaches of music in Japan had much to do with his work on Mah-Doh in general and Desert Ship in particular. Mr. Koreyasu also displays exemplary technique when playing pizzicato as well and his performance on the hypnotic “Ripple Mark” shows him to be utterly majestic. But it is ultimately Ms. Fujii’s wonderful compositions and her fabulous playing keeps the mesmerising nature of the album front and centre. Between her playing and that of Natsuki Tamura, this album became one of the most beloved by the duo and the Quartet as a whole and will endure the test of time. It is also one of Ms. Fujii’s better selling albums, not that the pianist strives for something of that nature. Desert Ship is a fantastic adventure that combines visual narratives and the magnificence of science fiction into the art of music that is enchanting and unforgettable. In many respects this adventure also ties in with the verisimilitude that all art in Japan is linked like a gigantic chain that begins at the beginning of time and ends at infinity, or travels into the realm of the infinite where all time stops. This is true of Akira Kurosawa’s monumental work and the enchanting concepts of the music act as parallels for the epic works of Mr. Kurosawa.
There is another persona that Satoko Fujii adopts often. This is the one she uses when she plays in Natsuki Tamura’s band, Gato Libre, which has since been disbanded after the death of their bassist Norikatsu Koreyasu. Here Ms. Fujii plays accordion and she plays the instrument exceedingly well. It also bears mention that the instrument is eminently suited for the task at hand, for the music of Gato Libre was ponderous; almost melancholic and Ms. Fujii wailed on her instrument. However, it was Natsuki Tamura who defined the music of this band. His notes were stretched to the limit and so his lines were elastic. He poured hot breath into his horn and there was much of it that gushed out of its bell. His focus was poignant and never wavered. The music was often melded with the folk music of the country and had that elementally sad shadow that lurked in the corners from whence it came even when it skipped and frolicked over hill and dale. It was, as always, viscous and lyrical and the lyricism reminded me of Dylan Thomas, the great Welsh poet who defined the lyricism of the English language. In the case of Satoko Fujii and Natsuki Tamura, and of course Norikatsu Koreyasu, the music sung with steely heroism that continues to echo across Japan. The bassist had much to do with this. His robust pizzicato rumbled in the forefront of the ensemble and when Natsuki Tamura was lying low, he guided the small band like a lieutenant who was thrust into limelight to lead this band of extraordinary folk. In ensemble playing no band sounded tighter. Often including the guitar of Kazuhiko Tamura, the group would often close in like a golden orb and only the four-way counterpoint would be heard, rumbling its way through “Dune and Star” and then on “Scorpion” from the album Shiro. This is a sensational album and contains exquisite musicianship on the part of Mr. Tamura and Ms. Fujii, as well as the guitarist and the celebrated bassist, Mr. Koreyasu. Norikatsu Koreyasu’s playing is muscular. He wrenches the strings with machismo and is—if he had used the old kind of strings—gut-wrenching when he plucks the strings. This created a magnificent bass line behind the rest of the ensemble. His gravitas is poignant and he showed why he was such an integral part of the band. He was also a towering figure in Japanese music almost and in many respects he reminds me of the majestic figure of Oscar Pettiford, who also had a polarising effect in the bands in which he played, whether he was bowing or whether he was plucking the strings of his beloved bass. Mr. Koreyasu’s masterful turn on “Mountain, River, Sky” where he has an extended con arco solo was one of the defining moments on the album and I believe that the bassist was one of the reasons why the album turned out the way it did. It is understandable therefore that both Natsuki Tamura as well as Satoko Fujii could not continue with certain projects after the untimely death of this fine musician. However, in balance, the band was a collective and I for one would like to see this ensemble revived, especially as it was one of the few ensembles that understood and portrayed Japanese folk music in the jazz idiom, with such undaunted precision as well as with such passion, grace and fire.