Satoko Fujii Trio | Trace A River | Libra Records

libra records 203-020

Satoko Fujii – piano | Mark Dresser – bass | Jim Black – drums

Recorded on December 23, 2006 by Jeremy Kenny at One Soul Studios, NYC. * Recorded on July 13, 2007 by Patrick Lo Re at One Soul Studios, NYC. Mixed by Patrick Lo Re on July 13, 2007 at One Soul Studios, NYC. Mastered on September 25, 2007 by Scott Hull at Scott Hull Mastering, NYC. Executive producer: Natsuki Tamura. Artwork: Ichiji Tamura. Design: Masako Tanaka. Photos: Ryo Natsuki, Natsuki Tamura, Satoko Fujii.

Tracklist: 1. Trace A River [12:40] 2. Take Right [7:28] 3. Manta [7:33] 4. A Maze Of Alleys [6:20] 5. Day After Tomorrow * [3:18] 6. Kawasemi [7:46] 7. February * [2:43]

Satoko Fujii Trio | Trace A River | libra records

With the first high, floating, bowed notes

from Mark Dresser’s bass, supported by the equally ethereal chords from Satoko Fujii’s piano and Jim Black’s shimmering cymbals, Trace A River boldly announces the return of her “American” trio, four years after Illusion Suite (Libra, 2004).

2008 finds Fujii turning fifty and she shows no sign of letting up, also releasing the second recording by Junk Box, Cloudy Then Sunny, and playing accordion on Kuro (Libra, 2008), from her husband Natsuki Tamura’s group Gato Libre. Building a discography that now numbers close to sixty, and working in many forms and configurations, Fujii continues to make “music that has never been heard before.”

This trio has been together since their debut, Looking Out The Window (Crown, 1998), and they know each other very well. Fujii lauds both Dresser and Black for their different, but equally fearless, approaches to performing. Since her music follows no rules, and yet has structure, direction, and the strong imprint of her freely giving personality, she highly values her band mates who can receive what she creates and then make it their own.

Fujii, Dresser, and Black are a real unit where their individual voices can be clearly heard while they continuously work together to make a unified whole. The result is music that is completely alive, unpredictable and yet accessible due to the logic of its structure and development.

The emotional range of Trace a River is enormous, both between and within its tracks. The opening title track, by far the longest at almost thirteen minutes, begins with Dresser’s hair-raising cello-like playing, followed by an energetic theme that serves as the skeletal referent of the piece. He then continues with a blistering plucked solo, and Fujii responds with some ferocious playing, as does Black. The trio then joins forces to create a climax, which slowly wends its way back to the calm feel of the opening.

“Mantra,” in contrast to the title track—which can be heard as a tone poem reflecting the descent of a river and its changing forms—is a sound world unto itself. Dresser’s bass notes slowly slide up as Fujii plucks the piano strings, creating a supremely eerie sound until the bass plays a repeated riff underneath a floating piano melody and form arises from the depths—amazing music which embraces freedom within structure.

The other tracks are just as varied, surprising, engrossing, and entertaining. Included are two shorter tracks, “Day After Tomorrow” and “February,” on which Fujii plays solo piano. On display are both her wealth of invention and real-time control. The music hovers around tonality, flirting with it, but never really leaving it behind. The effect is like a warm embrace as the music carries and leads the ear.

Exciting, energetic, many-layered, and thought-provoking, Fujii, along with Dresser and Black have created another masterpiece with Trace A River. — Budd Kopman

Satoko Fujii Trio | Trace A River | libra records

According to a recent interview

pianist and composer Satoko Fujii feels as if her music doesn’t fit in anywhere – too odd for the jazz crowd, and too jazzy for the rock crowd. To me, this is a sure sign of artistic success, especially after having recorded 50-odd CDs as a leader and perhaps another 50 as a side-person and collaborator over the past 10 years. For someone as prolific and as restless as Fujii, the avoidance of genre-specific musical pigeonholes is a prerequisite for the continued vitality of her endlessly fecund artistry. Though Fujii currently leads several bands, including three or four different big bands, two or three different quartets, and a longstanding duo with trumpeter Natsuke Tamura, her primary creative outlet is a piano trio that features two other 21st Century jazz innovators: bassist Mark Dresser and percussionist Jim Black. This is a piano trio for the ages – a group whose oeuvre consistently smacks of genius.

Trace A River is the trio’s sixth or seventh recording since its inception over a decade ago. Suffice it to say that the interaction between the three virtuosi is now beyond telepathic. Unlike most jazz piano trios, Fujii music’s is essentially cooperative in nature – at different times during each of the seven pieces on this disc, each musician functions as a lead voice. Similarly, the written portions of Fujii’s imaginative, multi-sectioned compositions receive as much weight as do the improvisations. Frequently the trio breaks up into various duo combinations, or stops entirely as an individual soloist launches an improvisation or plunges forward into a new compositional motif. Fujii’s music has few constants, except for a tireless sort of forward-moving energy, and a never-ending quest for invention. The trio seems to take particular pleasure in negotiating the musical connective tissue that binds Fujii’s odd musical juxtapositions together. In ‘Take Right’, a gently ruminative solo piano intro gives way to a brief burst of post-Cecil Taylor improvisational energy music before the first theme rides in on a wave of Black’s punkish drum energy.

Elsewhere on Trace A River, Fujii and her trio abandon the ever-changing kaleidoscopic approach of pieces like ‘Take Right,’ ‘Kawasemi,’ and the sprawling title track for a steely single-mindedness and sustained focus. This comes to the fore on the CD’s three ballads. ‘Manta,’ a haunting, folk-tinged lament that hangs in the air like a morning mist. This music slides into one’s consciousness on Dresser’s mega-glissandi and Black’s spooky malleted gongs and cymbals as Fujii slowly moves from prepared piano to a more traditional approach. The extended melody is gauzy, trancelike. Dresser and Black support Fujii with drums and bass that are in constant flux while also somehow being totally in the pocket. This is truly remarkable music-making. Two piano solos, the dreamy ‘Day After Tomorrow’ and the darker, jazzier ‘February’ have a similar drifting mystery to them. The power of these pieces originates in their meditative concentration and detailed exploration of a relatively confined musical area.

Though Fujii, who studied at NEC with George Russell, Paul Bley, and Cecil McBee, derives artistic inspiration from sources as diverse as heavy metal, Japanese folk music, contemporary classical, and avant garde jazz, more mainstream influences also crop up in her music. In particular, the melody line of ‘A Maze of Alleys’ playfully conjures the work of Chick Corea before it explodes into a sequence of Don Pullen-like sweeps and runs. Dresser’s solo on this piece is lush and expansive. Corea is hinted at again during Fujii’s solo on ‘Kawasemi,’ another raucous ride that features Jim Black’s spectacularly unhinged drumming and Dresser’s complete re-imagination of his bass as a giant viola.

I don’t know how Satoko Fujii does it, but she has created yet another indispensable recording. Her singularly energetic and inventive music is a wonder to behold. Trace A River is truly one of 2008’s best jazz recordings, and belongs in the collection of all jazz fans who have a serious interest in the future of jazz piano, post-Cecil Taylor. — Dave Wayne

Satoko Fujii Trio | Trace A River | libra records


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3 thoughts on “Satoko Fujii Trio | Trace A River | Libra Records

  1. Pianist and composer Satoko Fujii returns with Mark Dresser (bass) and Jim Black (drums) on another exciting recording. Not only does Fujii go further in her explorations, she also shows a deeper sense of harmony, developed in tandem with her band. Her writing is varied and accentuates her skill as a composer.

    In the past, Fujii, Black and Dresser have shown that intuition plays a key role in the development of their music and they continue to do so. This is a prime factor and as they formulate themes not only with a logical lucidity but also with exuberance, the music becomes immediate and all-encompassing.

    Fujii plays a melodic run to introduce “Take Right.” She changes tempo, adds thunderous chords and rolls along like mighty thunder. Black comes in and the conversation between him and Fujii is rife with point and counterpoint. They know where they are headed and that is a melodically saturated path. Fujii revisits the melody and extrapolates it and the trio sets off of a martial beat. It’s a classic example of how they break open a mould and fill it with copiously resonating ideas.

    “Kawasemi” gets the nod from Dresser’s arco, slowly and lazily finding its line and groove. The pace continues in this pulse until Fujii comes on to egg the rhythm section, prodding them until they explode. Calm returns with Fujii playing a happy tune and keeping abstraction at bay. The mainstream is not placid for long, for as soon as Fujii rips into some agitating notes, the pitch becomes more pronounced. Yet within the swirl, the melody is constantly fed.

    “Day After Tomorrow” gives Fujii room for introspection. She is laid back, playing with calm and letting the beauty of the tune rise gently.

    This is fine material and exceptional playing, which makes for another triumphant record from the Trio.

  2. The ever-prolific Satoko Fujii is celebrating the year of her 50th birthday by doing what she does ever year: touring, composing and recording relentlessly. The latest round of releases from Libra—the imprint she runs with trumpeter Natsuki Tamura—include new recordings by her longstanding trio with bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Jim Black and a more recent trio with Tamura and drummer John Hollenbeck. Tamura might not match his wife’s speed of release, but his records are just as satisfying, as evidenced by a new release from his band Gato Libre.

    The trio with Dresser and Black uses some of her jazziest writing and playing, full of jumping lines and lyrical passages. More recently, the group has been expanded to include Tamura on trumpet, but here they are back to their original lineup and it’s in the classic piano trio setting that the influence of Fujii’s former teacher Paul Bley comes out the most. While Trace a River sounds like the band’s previous work, here perhaps it is more contemplative, softer and more pastoral at times. Dresser, of course, is more than able to fulfill his role here, generally keeping close to the pieces and supporting Fujii beautifully. The band’s edge comes from Black’s drums. He’s just as tight in the pieces, but pushes to an unexpected degree. Where this could have been a brush-and-cymbal affair, Black underlines rather than accentuates, solidifying the melodies.

    For a player with as many projects as Fujii, it’s hard to tell when something’s a one-off meeting or a new band. So it’s a happy surprise that Junk Box has come around with a second release, Cloudy Then Sunny. The first disc by the trio of Fujii, Tamura and Hollenbeck was a fun meeting even if it didn’t quite gel. Here, however, they feel like they know what they’re dealing with. The pieces (all Fujii’s) are less formalized than her trio compositions, sometimes even comic. Tamura likes to play the imp and Fujii seems to compose to that here. Fujii’s bands are always centered on rhythm, but Junk Box is her most open project, with piano and drums falling back and forth on the rhythm while Tamura’s muted sobs and sputtered screams wander inbetween. It’s an unusual side to the pianist and an enormously fun one at that.

    Fujii and Tamura seem to give each other permission to act out in their respective bands. Tamura—historically the quirkier of the two—has grown downright respectable with his Gato Libre project, playing much more inside than with Junk Box. And likewise he throws Fujii into unexpected situations in his groups, having her play synthesizer in past groups and, with the Spanish-inflected new band, accordion. With the band’s first release in 2005, it seemed another trick up Tamura’s sleeve, but now they’re up to three with Kuro and the records keep getting better. The sweet, plaintive melodies are swapped between the leader and acoustic guitarist Norikatsu Koreyasu, whose playing shines throughout. There’s still playfulness to his composing, but the performance is daringly traditional. Tamura’s new trick, apparently, is that he’s not trying to trick anyone at all. Tamura and Fujii are always worthy of attention, but this latest round is an especially good harvest.

  3. Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii celebrates her fiftieth birthday this year. A prolific and diverse artist, Fujii has one of the most impressive discographies in contemporary jazz. In honor of this milestone event she has concurrently released two very different trio albums on her label, the other being Cloudy Then Sunny, an experimental project from the collaborative trio Junk Box.

    Fujii’s trio features longstanding members Mark Dresser on bass and Jim Black on drums. Trace a River is her seventh recording with this line-up; their deep discography reaches back a decade, starting with Looking Out of the Window (Crown, 1998) on up to their previous session, Illusion Suite (Libra, 2004).

    A conventional trio in instrumentation, but not approach, these three challenge preconceived notions of soloist and accompanist as they upend stereotypical roles in regards to melody, rhythm and harmony, each member an equal voice. Conversing on a virtually telepathic level, they expound on these sophisticated pieces with episodic drama and fitful invention.

    A tuneful amalgamation of the lyrical/introspective bent of post-war pianists like Paul Bley and Keith Jarrett, Fujii’s writing for this line-up is among her most compelling. Her compositions resonate with rich harmonic depth and spacious dynamics that provide contrast to dense thickets of activity. Neo-classical themes that resound with romantic impressionism and angular cadences are augmented by dissonant clusters and prismatic chord voicings.

    Dresser and Black have been rhythm section partners in countless ensembles; their deep-seated rapport spans a decade. Dresser’s strident arco work and Black’s effervescent percussive accents offer a range of expression rarely found in most rhythm sections.

    Fujii threads myriad styles into her elaborate, multifaceted compositions with an approach that is seamlessly organic. The cinematic “Manta” simmers with pointillist ambience while “A Maze of Alleys” regales with a circuitous fervor that fuses the ebullient lilt of Mozart with the crashing, angular dissonances of Cecil Taylor. “Take Right” transforms from pensive lyricism into riotous abstracted Eastern European dance rhythms while “Kawasemi” modulates from shadowy turmoil into sanguine pop tunefulness reminiscent of the Bad Plus.

    The trio often embraces contrasting moods within the space of a song. The title track opens with plangent, harmonic arco bowing from Dresser, accompanied by Fujii’s spare chords and Black’s scintillating accents. Suddenly, they launch into a coiled unison theme fueled by Fujii’s thorny arpeggios, Dresser’s thrumming pizzicato and Black’s cascading polyrhythms. From this spiraling vortex they open a vista of sonic possibilities to explore before gradually returning to austere beginnings.

    “Day After Tomorrow” and “February” feature Fujii solo, plying melodious improvisations ripe with harmonic ingenuity. Alone or with her trio, Fujii reveals a singular voice that effortlessly bridges the accessible with the adventurous. Trace a River offers ample proof of the continued relevance of the venerable piano trio format in the hands a true artist.

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