Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York – Fukushima (2017)

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feature photo: Bryan Murray

Now boasting a remarkable ten albums over twenty years, Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York today takes another step forward with Fukushima (Libra Records), the first new recordings from Satoko Fujii’s American large ensemble project since 2014’s Shiki.

The best big band leaders know how to exploit a large ensemble akin to a single, giant instrument, with all the nimbleness and unpredictability that using only one instrument often implies. The Orchestra New York has always been an effective a projection of Fujii’s musical personality, evident in the way melodies, contours and shapes all come together so freely, there lacks any self-consciousness about it.

For the first time, Fujii employs a theme for a SFONY record, namely the nuclear disaster at Japan’s Fukushima power plant that was precipitated by that big tsunami of 2011. Though only surpassed by Chernobyl as the worst nuclear power plant failure in world history, it was scary close to being much worse, threatening to overwhlem nearby Tokyo — Fujii’s birthplace — with harmful radiation. That moved Fujii to channel her concerns into creating an extended piece, split into five parts for this album. I’d be tempted to state that this hour-long odyssey through expressions of rage, sorrow and hope is an ambitious undertaking, but Fujii knows no other way to conceive of and execute in any of her undertakings.

What might add to her normal level of high aspirations — other than a unifying topic — is an assembly of musicians that boasts quality all across its thirteen-member covey. Fujii’s reputation enables her to draw in some of New York’s best improvisers, and this all-star ensemble’s star power fortified further with this version’s inclusion of guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Ches Smith. We heard Cline mix it up with a jazz orchestra before for his friend Scott Amendola’s ambitious Fade To Orange project, and he (and Smith) have long proven adaptable to any setting. We briefly get to hear these two key additions in isolation late in the second track, and Cline’s signature wonderful weirdness comes to the fore again and couple of tracks later.

These two new additions mingle with other heavyweights such as Oscar Noriega, Ellery Eskelin, Tony Malaby, Stomu Takeishi, Andy Laster, Dave Ballou, Herb Robertson, Joey Sellers, Joe Fiedler, Curtis Hasselbring and Fujii’s husband Natsuki Tamura.

Fujii herself doesn’t play anything, but her composing and conducting ensures that the others are projecting her complex psyche accurately. It’s a psyche that knows how to exploit tranquility (such as the collective noteless blowing creating a foreboding wind) to lull listeners into ambience and then traverse into unsettling moments that escalate into something threatening chaos almost imperceptibly.

It’s not even until the second track/segment when it’s obvious that a full orchestra playing, when the full effect of a half dozen horns is brought to bear shortly after Laster’s baritone sax exchanges unhinged pleasantries with Cline. But the charts are often used to punctuate and adorn dramatic solos; Fujii’s usual tactic of leaving plenty of open spaces in her arrangements to maximize free, personalized expression that somehow fits into the overall vision. Moments of pure grace balance out the abrasive ones, like Noriega’s spotlight against a almost non-existent backdrop during the first part of the third section. On the next track, Takeishi cuts loose an alien bass solo that’s a match for Cline’s famed eccentricities.

Those moments of pure improv are balanced out by motifs and vamps that randomly put down markers that point the participants in the same direction just when it appears that anarchy was gaining the upper hand. But Fujii always makes sure that anarchy is a main ingredient. Fukushima reflects mankind’s constant struggle to regain control when events Man set into motion unwittingly causes the chaos in the first place.


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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