The vast majority of jazz big bands in the current age are little more than replicas from big bands’ golden age, and as competent as they usually are, such records only make me want to go back and listen to the original innovators such as Ellington and Basie who inspired all the those copycats.
Pianist, composer and bandleader Satoko Fujii is the exception who proves the rule, because aside from perhaps George Russell and Sun Ra to a certain degree, her large ensemble music doesn’t sound much like big band music anywhere else. A lot of that has to do with her willingness to draw from every mood, every style and every impulse at her disposal; she never boxes herself or her band inside artificial constraints.
Her Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York is full of well-regarded bandleaders, composers and musicians, such as Oscar Noriega, Ellery Eskelin, Andy Laster, Steven Bernstein, Curtis Hasselbring, Joe Fiedler and Fujii’s husband, trumpet player Natsuki Tamura. This is a testament to Tokyo-based Fujii’s status as a first among equals within the world epicenter of creative jazz.
Fujii thrives on using the jarring juxtaposition of the dissonant, free form improvisation of her star soloists and the scored melodiousness of a full orchestra. It turns the thirty-six minute epic “Shiki” into a series of digestible acts, which frequently bleed into one another. Beginning with a sax drone, some drawn out chords by all the horns are punctuated by a brief drum solo from Aaron Alexander, and then a larger, collective drone emerges as the drums rumble underneath. From there, the piece vacillates from free playing by one or two soloists and elegant statements bolstered by the full weight of the orchestra. Near the end, fretless electric assist Stomu Takeishi gets his own spotlight, too.
“Gen Himmel,” which mean “heavenwards” in German, is adapted from the title song of a solo piano Fujii album released just last year. In this large band format, an uneasy mood emanates from the drums and a handful of horns open the song. Meanwhile, the rest of the horns emerge with a stately, anthemic figure. The two competing streams seemingly tug at each other, trying in vain to knock the other side off track.
On every orchestra record, Fujii will inevitably do something madcap, and that’s represented on this album by the Tamura-penned “Bi Ga Do Da.” A brief plunged trumpet remark is followed by spoken gibberish. An eerie muted sound coming from some unknown horn interrupts for a moment. Then suddenly a sing-song chant over a thumping rock beat comes crashing in, and a trumpet breaks out soloing followed by more chanting. The band stops, yelling commences, yelling stops and the groove restarts; rinse and repeat. The song structure is simple and goofy but the zeal, swagger and campy humor is where the creativity of the song is invested. When I state that Fujii uses every imaginable means to create a work of musical art, I really mean it.
Shiki goes on sale May 27, 2014 from Libra Records
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