Satoko Fujii Tobira – Yamiyo Ni Karasu (2015)

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Satoko Fujii is a tireless composer, performer and bandleader, making some seventy plus albums over the last twenty years over perhaps a dozen or so different combos of every imaginable size and combination. Her latest ensemble Tobira is a rather conventional quartet consisting of herself on piano, her husband Natsuki Tamura on trumpet, Takashi Itani on drums and Todd Nicholson on drums. But there’s a story behind each of her projects, and that includes this band and their debut record Yamiyo Ni Karasu (July 14, 2015, Libra Records).

Responding to unexpected end of Fujii’s prior quartet ma-do due the sudden death of ma-do bassist Norikatsu Koreyasu, Fujii launched the Satoko Fujii New Trio with Itani and Nicholson and in 2013 an album Spring Storm came forth. From this been-there/done-that configuration came a very uncommon approach, resulting in creative, unpredictable and ultimately satisfying music. “Long live the Satoko Fujii New Trio” I wrote then.

It didn’t last, but that’s no reason for despair; the New Trio soon morphed into a new quartet with the addition of Tamura, whose innate understanding of his wife’s art makes him probably the only addition who could amplify, not alter the character of the band. And thus Tobira was born.

As with Spring Storm, the appeal of Yamiyo Ni Karasu isn’t so much Fujii’s compositions — which are imaginative on their own — but how the musicians treat them. In classic Fujii fashion, there is always something lurking around the corner in her scores, and it can be disruptive, soothing and even humorous. As Fujii herself quickly concedes, it’s that last element that Tamura excels at bringing out, That’s important, because although this is a serious ensemble playing serious compositions, they don’t take themselves too seriously and that makes it easier to enjoy.

The playfulness is evident from the opening notes, or should I say, non-notes, emanating from puffs on Tamura’s trumpet at the beginning of “Hanabi.” From there, Fujii builds up momentum and the entire group gallops on a riff that’s punctuated by a stormy drum solo. Though things quickly dissipate from here, clouds gather again culminating in the earlier theme enroute to a soft landing.

Beginning each song with an a capella performance occurs on nearly every track and it’s Nicholson’s edgy arco bass that instigates “Run After A Shadow.” His pizzicato interactions with Fujii are almost classical in nature but also instinctual and somehow lead to Fujii’s central theme, which the band repeatedly returns to using staggered paths to get there. The turbulent “Fuki” pairs Tamura with Fujii and counterpoints offered up by Nicholson, building to a climatic all-out free ending. Tamura delivers a gorgeous trumpet performance at the start of “Potential Energy,” where the band later finds a boiling groove that gives way to quieter meditations.

The quartet does return to a trio for three of these seven tracks. The absent horn is turned into opportunities for very percussive melodies where harmony and rhythm are blurred in together, especially on “Centrifugal Force,” and the gorgeous strain introduced by Fujii alone at the commencement of “Wind Dance” forms the basis of that performance. The title track, which fittingly means “the crow in the dark night” in Japanese, traverses over a barren soundscape, some random sounds that contrasts with the fluid but vivid harmonics of the rest of the album.

Tobira itself means “door,” and when the door was opened for Natsuki Tamura, Satoko Fujii’s latest small ensemble became complete. With Yamiyo Ni Karasu, the transition from ma-do to an exciting new quartet becomes complete.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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