Satoko Fujii Orchestra Berlin – Ichigo Ichie (2015)

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Wherever Satoko Fujii goes in this great big world, she immerses herself into the local environment, and the local environment in turn, adds a little something to her wild, wide-open music.

Four years ago, the boundary-smashing Japanese composer, pianist and bandleader Fujii and husband/trumpeter Natsuki Tamura moved to Berlin. Just as they’ve done in New York, Tokyo, Kobe, Nagoya, the pair found some of the best talent the jazz scene there had to offer — German or not — and assembled a large band just as she’s done and NYC. On July 14, 2015, the debut album from the Satoko Fujii Orchestra Berlin premieres, the same day as another new Fujii ensemble Tobira drops its first album.

The primary vehicle Fujii chose for SFOB’s initial project has a little story of its own: “Ichigo Ichie,” which roughly means “once in a lifetime” in Japanese, is a four-part suite that she composed for the Chicago Jazz Festival of 2013. Though the Berlin Orchestra didn’t perform the piece then, Fujii as usual left a lot of room for improv in this work and that helped to make it easily transferable to completely different set of musicians.

Recorded in same studio where they played the same pieces in a concert the day before, Fujii directed the twelve piece orchestra with firm direction but a great deal of freedom: improvisation is liberally mixed with scored parts and solo, duets, trios and quartets blur in and out with the entire ensemble. Everyone gets a turn or two to solo amidst rules that are fluid and designed to create stark contrasts of quiet beauty of a few with the convulsive tension of a dozen unique voices clamoring to make statements.

That is why you don’t need to be a fan of big band music to embrace any Satoko Fujii big band, such as the Berlin group. One of her secret weapons lies in the utilization of two drummers, Peter Orins and Michael Griener. They combine to create counter currents strong enough to withstand the general direction of a song usually dictated by the two tenor saxes, one baritone sax, three trumpets and a trombone.

The two-headed monster drums begin Part 1 of “Ichigo Ichie” and again on Part 2, the second time accompanied by the full band. In this and in many other instances, Fujii creates collisions by directing Orins and Griener to run wild underneath the calmer currents being generated my most of the rest of the ensemble.

She’ll also give soloists the bright, hot spotlight either with little or no accompaniment, then builds a swirling mass of music around that soloist, eventually engulfing him or her. Such was the case in Part 1 when trombonist Matthias Müller performs his discourse, a rapid dispensing of notes darting up, down and sideways, gathering volume as the band re-enters. A skittering solo trumpet, almost certainly Natsuki’s, herald the third movement, and Paulina Owczarek’s baritone saxophone is heard later in this section engaging in playful interplay with Jan Roder (bass) and the drums.

Another unexpected turn occurs in Part 2, when electronic sounds most likely generated by Kazuhisa Uchihashi’s guitar appear around the 5:30 mark, followed by a tenor saxophone — either from Matthias Schubert or Gebhard Ullman, — uncannily imitating those sounds.

After the four movement title piece, there’s a little lagniappe: “ABCD” is a composition created virtually created by graphics and instructions, with numbered parts chosen by each orchestra member to guarantee a unique outcome. Starting with a barely audible trumpet that gradually builds up with the band, the performance unexpectedly breaks open into drums playing fast swing drums fronted only by a nasty baritone sax by Owczarek. Other horns muscle their way in and then stops suddenly with piano and trumpet the only ones remaining. That in turn bursts open into an open-ended cacophony that one can sense follows some unspoken code. It feels roughly like 80% chaos and 20% order.

In practice, big band jazz is often carried out using the conventions of the 30s and 40s, but the idea of big band jazz should mean endless possibilities. These days, there isn’t anyone who is exploiting these possibilities more aggressively than Satoko Fujii. With a fresh new set of musicians to carry them out, Ichigo Ichie is an exciting new chapter in the orchestral part of her oeuvre.

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,, 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 [email protected] .com or follow him on Twitter at
S. Victor Aaron
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