Video above is a track included on a prior Satoko Fujii Orchestra Toyko release, ‘Zakopane’
While Maria Schneider receives a lot of acclaim for her modern, creative big band jazz — and rightfully so — another amazing woman from across the Pacific has also been doing magically audacious things with a large jazz ensemble. Actually, Satoko Fujii does it with three large jazz ensembles: one based in Berlin, on in New York and third in her native Tokyo. As she is involved in smaller combos as well — like Gato Libre, Kaze, Satoko Fujii Tobira and Satoko Fujii New Trio — Fujii has kept quite busy since her last Tokyo album Zakopane (2010) but the passage of time isn’t the only occasion for a new Orchestra Tokyo record.
Peace, to drop on January 27, 2017 courtesy of Libra Records, is a tribute to a key player in the Orchestra, Kelly Churko. Churko, a Canadian guitarist with a flair for noise metal, passed away at the beginning of 2014 after a battle with cancer; he was only 36. What Churko brought to Fujii’s Tokyo band more than anything else had set it apart from all other jazz orchestras, including those New York and Berlin bands. The collision between his daredevil guitar and a regiment of horns created sparks that made Fujii’s compositions lively and unpredictable. As he was a guy that Fujii described as “was very peaceful and loved peace,” the title alludes to his genial personality that belied his rowdy guitar.
The guitar chair isn’t replaced, perhaps because Fujii feels that no one can replace Churko, but she does supplement the fourteen-piece ensemble with an extra trumpet (Christian Pruvost) and drums (Peter Orins), who along with Fujii and her husband Natsuki Tamura (trumpet) make up the Kaze quartet. Therein lies the latest twist in the ever-evolving Satoko Fujii Orchestra Tokyo adventure.
What’s clear in this altered band is that Fujii (who doesn’t perform on this record but serves as the project’s mastermind and conductor) once again turned the tragedy of a loss of a key musician she’s worked with into inspired music. “2014,” marking the year of Churko’s death, begins with Pruvost’s unaccompanied trumpet fits, liberally mixing notes and noises. Orins’ drums move in from a distance, eventually overcoming the trumpeter, as do the rest of the orchestra. This kicks off a pattern of alternating/blending anarchic tumult of individual improvisation with the majesty of a massive ensemble. Later combatants are a trombonist (Yasuyuki Takahashi) against tenor sax (Masaya Kimura), both drummers Orins and Akira Horikoshi, and trumpet versus trumpet (Tamura and Toshihiro Koike). After a thirty minute flight, the performance comes to a soft landing on the wings of Toshiki Nagata’s bass.
“Jasper,” written by Tamura, utilizes a completely different ploy. Sachi Hayasaka’s solemn soprano saxophone streams out a winsome melody at first alone, and then, almost imperceptibly, the orchestra gradually throws its weight behind it. The ballad becomes a slow, thudding march and before long, the drums go off leash. “Beguine Nummer Eins” is as ‘straight’ as the SFOT gets here, a Spanish styled melody led by the rhapsodic trumpet of Yoshihito Fukumoto; it’s a song that wouldn’t be out place if it were performed by the Tamura-led Gato Libre quartet.
“Peace” may refer to the gentle spirit that Fujii remembers about Churko, but the music itself is anything but, a clear nod to the unrestrained energy he brought to the orchestra. All of the saxes engage in two and half minutes of fury, making way for Ryuichi Yoshida’s frontal assault of the low notes with his baritone sax after which Kunihiro Izumi attacks high notes with his alto horn. It’s not hard to imagine Churko in Izumi’s place wailing away in a similar fashion.
Every Satoko Fujii Orchestra Tokyo record is a thrill ride overflowing with surprises and pure passion that makes the exercise of deciding what genre it belongs into so insignificant. As a celebration of its fallen guitarist Kelly Churko, Peace couldn’t be any more true to his memory and the fearlessness he brought to this band.
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