Satoko Fujii Orchestra Berlin – Ninety-Nine Years (2018)

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In 2015, Satoko Fujii unveiled her fifth big band project with the debut album of the Satoko Fujii Orchestra Berlin, Ichigo Ichie. Though the results were fantastic, the material used was recycled from a four-part suite the composer and pianist had authored for the Chicago Jazz Festival and couple of years prior. But the energy and nerve of that the Berlin crew put into those works excited Fujii enough to imagine compositions tailored for this band, and Ninety-Nine Years (Libra Records) is the result.

This time the orchestra is pared down a bit, from twelve to ten players: no longer does it have the electric guitar of Kazuhisa Uchihashi and Fujii retreats from her piano to serve strictly as the composer and conductor, which keeps her plenty busy enough. Because — as is her hallmark — Fujii devises patterns and motifs that serve as touchpoints in each song, but provides wide leeway for each of the musicians to improvise; her job is directing the timing of how and when all these often surprising events occur.

The use of two drummers is exploited right from the start: “Unexpected Incident” begins with a convo between Michael Griener and Peter Orins, and after about three minutes of some exotic chimes and thumps, the gathering density culminates into the rest of the band exploding into a dramatic horn pattern (repeated at certain intervals) with Gebhard Ullman’s runaway tenor sax fluttering around. Afterwards, a rapid bass/drums pulse lays the foundation for Matthias Muller’s mad trombone with saxes chiming in. When a trumpet takes its turn, it has some urgency alright but downright tame compared to Ullman, who returns to cap off this carnival ride with more skronky treats.

Jan Roder’s thoughts on bass form the intro of “Ninety-Nine Years.” The percussion joins in the dialogue, as does Paulina Owczarek on baritone saxophone, making this a meeting of the bottom tones for a while. Then Fujii calls in a chart and Ullmann goes off once again, this time in concert with the drums. “On The Way” is another dual drum exchange and yes, the horn charts do eventually arrive as an intricately interwoven pattern. This time, there’s no collective blowing off steam but a return to the double drum soloing, followed by an unaccompanied feature of Natsuki Tamura’s growling trumpet.

Fujii chooses to run the script she’s plotted for “Oops!” right at the start, but also lets the other saxophonist Matthias Schubert run around uninhibited. The title refers to the difficulty the horn players faced trying to follow the rhythms shifting under their feet, but they apparently had it figured out by the time of this recording. For “Follow The Idea,” the horns collectively make a shrill noise to go along with a tribal beat and it just gets campier from there, a display of Fujii’s wit which invariably shows up in all her orchestra records.

The Satoko Fujii Orchestra Berlin had gotten off on good footing with its first album, but in the unique, unbridled way they carry out their leader’s boundless ambition, this group has really come into its own with with Ninety-Nine Years. Cadence Magazine is right, Satoko Fujii truly is the “Ellington of free jazz.”

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