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Archive Reviews

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...i've only been writing for a few years but i see that stuff being put up in the thread is not necessarily all older 'archives.' hopefully this one will be enjoyable to read for some and maybe interesting musically. i'm more than interested in anyone's thoughts on it: ...

Welcome! I'd say: that is a nicely done review. The imagery made me want to hear the recording.

And thanks, Christiern, for the new additions. Always a pleasure...

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“Our (Italian) mineral water is, of course, much better,” explained a young lady from Terni’s tourist board, “but we want Mr. Davis to be happy.”

Frickin' hilarious......

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manfred's recent question about Satoko Fujii recommendations in the "Artists" section has inspired me to resurrect this long-dormant thread with my 2006 review of her four simultaneously released big band recordings.


Satoko Fujii Orchestra NY


Polystar Co. Ltd. MTCJ-3032

Satoko Fujii Orchestra Tokyo


Libra Records 215-015 · 215-016 (one CD, one DVD)

Satoko Fujii Orchestra Kobe

Kobe Yee!!

Crab Apple Records 002

Satoko Fujii Orchestra Nagoya


Bakamo Records BKM-005

This cornucopia of Fujii's large ensembles is a daunting package for a reviewer. It's heavy in more ways than one. Four full-length CDs – three of them over an hour in length and one clocking in at 52:31 – plus a concert DVD released simultaneously add up to one heck of a surfeit of adventurous music to digest in one sitting, or for that matter in dozens of sittings. We'll all be assimilating, mulling over and enjoying this music for a long time to come. The NY and Tokyo CDs consist entirely of Fujii's compositions. Nagoya has two by her husband and long-time musical partner, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, and one by guitarist Yasuhiro Usui, who founded and coordinates this orchestra. Kobe also includes two Tamura pieces.

Brimming with pounding unison riffs, dense tutti passages, driving rock-ish and funk-ified rhythms, plenty of slashing and often dissonant solos, there's a stormy, brawny, in-your-face aesthetic present in a majority of this material. Bassists and drummers get quite the aerobic workout navigating Fujii's charts. Although it may seem to be an obvious point – taking into consideration the history of jazz big bands/orchestras – the rhythm sections in these groups serve as fulcrums. With the sheer bulk of the structures Fujii builds as a composer, arranger and orchestrator – polished steel and black glass skyscrapers – the foundations must be rock-solid.

"Subtlety" is not a word that immediately springs to mind when attempting to describe her orchestras. There's Sturm und Drang massiveness, an athletic and sometimes almost confrontational ambiance. Orchestra Nagoya in particular has a bold, aggressive, raging edginess fueled by the excoriating electric guitar pyrotechnics of Yasuhiro Usui. The rattle-your-molars heft is comparable to a commingling of Cecil Taylor's European Orchestra (the Alms/Tiergarten recording from 1988) with the bombast of Stan Kenton on steroids. Throw in Usui's fierce metallic guitar and you've got music that's a spicy, hearty, chunky stew: no nouvelle cuisine or sushi here, boys and girls. If Fujii were composing in the European concert music tradition there would likely be quite a few duramente notations on her manuscripts. She is a fomenter of fiery, feisty, frenetic flights of fancy from the soloists in all four orchestras.

A number of parallels might be drawn between Fujii and Taylor. Both are diminutive in physical stature but colossal in talent, technique, originality, vigor and intensity. As pianists, both can spin seemingly endless, incessant skeins of dense, opaque improvisations packed with climaxes, thorny byways of pyramided tensions and releases; and conversely they're both capable of scudding cirrus passages, feathery impressionistic lyricism akin to improvised Debussy. As group leaders, both seem to draw the best playing from their colleagues through sheer force of personality.

Thom Jurek once called Fujii's music "refined maximalism." Despite the paste-you-to-the-wall intensity present in much of all four CDs, contrasts in dynamics and shading are certainly present in Fujii's orchestral work. The serene, ephemeral, floating quality of "Water" – heard on both the NY and Tokyo sets – is one of the most emotionally affecting compositions in this ambitious outpouring of 17 major new pieces, with evocative solo work from trumpeters Natsuki Tamura and Steven Bernstein in NY, Tamura and Takao Watanabe in Tokyo. The shifting rhythms, colorful counterpoint and melange of textures are indeed fluid.

Seven out of the eight compositions on Undulation are thematically linked by symbolic imagery. "I used the days of the week, " says Fujii. "In Japanese, the word for Monday also means moon, Tuesday is fire, Wednesday is water, Thursday is wood, Friday is metal, Saturday is the Earth, and Sunday is the sun." The parallels to the list of elements in several traditional cultures are apparent. Conspicuously absent are "air" and "ether." But the elastic, slippery electric bass playing of the remarkable Stomu Takeiski and the varieties of texture and timbre mastered by drummer Aaron Alexander (a Seattle native who moved to New York City in 1993) provide plenty of space and dynamic range throughout Undulation. The New York rhythm team is by far the most versatile and subtle among the four.

There are scores of notable solos sprinkled throughout. It would take a book-length review to do justice to them all. A few that stand out to my ears include: tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin's muscular opening to "Metal," driven by Aaron Alexander's limber drumming; Alexander's propulsive ensemble work and colorful solo on "Fire"; and the rather forlorn-sounding alto saxophone of Briggan Krauss (another fine player with a Pacific Northwest connection) on "The Earth." The latter piece is atmospheric and texturally inventive; it may be earthy but it's far from earthbound.

Orchestra Tokyo is blessed with a raft of talented and individualistic players too. The gritty alto saxophone of Kunihiro Izumi levitates "Fue Taiko," which begins with nearly three minutes of duo interplay with drummer Akira Horikoshi before Fujii layers in the ensemble. Izumi also plays end-blown wooden flutes (sometimes two simultaneously) very effectively. There's a down-and-dirty quasi-Blues shuffle segment with fervent alto testifying and a manic ending with Horikoshi battering away and ferocious free alto. The energy of Taiko is evoked in athletic unfettered form with little of the choreographed complexity of the tradition; the complexity here is decidedly free form. "Scramble" reminds me of an Oliver Nelson big band chart fast-forwarded into the 21st Century, with busy soprano saxophone work from Sachi Hayasaka and bawdy trombone courtesy of Yasuyuki Takahashi.

The DVD of the Tokyo concert is well produced with crisply directed camerawork and decent sound. It's odd that little attention is paid to the leader, but perhaps that's the way she wanted it. Fujii plays very little piano in this performance and takes no solos; a large majority of her time is spent conducting the orchestra. Orchestra Nagoya has a similar focus on the orchestra and soloists with no piano at all.

Fujii's composition "Bennie's Waltz" is heard on both the Tokyo and Nagoya sets. This piece is among the most immediately accessible and emotionally direct ones in this scarily prolific plethora of significant new works. Both versions have a comparable contour but the radically different personalities of the soloists differentiate the interpretations in very marked ways. Trumpet and baritone saxophone are the featured instruments on this chart. Tokyo trumpeter Yoshihito Fukumoto displays a gorgeous mid-range tone, earthy growls and a fluid imagination; his bari colleague Ryuichi Yoshida similarly tends to lavish more attention on the big horn's rich mid-range – at least in his solo – though the opening duo anchored by bass col arco features a few falsetto squiggles for contrast. Nagoya trumpeter Tsutomu Watanabe is a flashier player and spends more time in the higher reaches of his instrument's range, often reminding me of some of the Cuban virtuosos, combining lyricism and bravado; his bari colleague Daion Kobayashi is prolix and intense, a post-Bluiett stomper and wailer.

The press release accompanying this package aptly described Kobayashi's playing as "blustering deconstructions." One wonders who Bennie is… I can certainly envision sui generis tenorist Bennie Wallace playing this composition though he may not be the Bennie in the title.

The waltz and the title selection from Kobe Yee!! (a Nuevo Tango à la Fujii) point to Carla Bley as a possible influence, particularly her writing for Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra. Orchestra Nagoya has a bottom-heavy sound quite reminiscent of Bley's fascination with the low-register instruments; trombonist Toshinori Terukina doubles on euphonium and the tuba of Tatsuki Yoshino has a prominent role in the ensemble as well as a couple of cameos. Baritone saxophone plays an important part in all four ensembles.

Another – perhaps oblique, perhaps not – connection to Bley is Fujii's sense of humor. This facet of her personality emerges most directly in "Sola" from Orchestra Kobe. Clocking in at 17:26, this is the longest piece in the package. It traverses a wide swath of musical terrain without ever losing focus. There are dark expressionism, scorching free-for-all explosions, a soaring theme, and some hilariously satirical ersatz militaristic march-like interludes. It's a montage superimposed on a collage.

Long-time Fujii fans will definitely want to add all four releases to their collections post-haste; each has its own distinctive personality and highlights. Neophytes would do well beginning with Undulation, then moving on to Live!!!, Kobe Yee!! and Maru. Aficionados of eardrum shredding post-Hendrix, post-Sharrock electric guitar might want to reverse that order.

The press release for this War and Peace of large orchestra jazz calls Fujii "…one of the leading big band composers of her generation…" At the risk of sounding hyperbolic I'd rephrase that statement: "the leading big band composer of her generation."

In the process of immersing myself in her orchestral music to prepare this review the words of Lukas Foss came to mind: "Composing is like making love to the future."


Bill Barton

Edited by Bill Barton

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Just stumbled upon this thread. It's taken me well over an hour to read through it, but very enjoyable and informative. Great thread Bill. Thanks and keep 'em coming!

:tup :tup

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