Satoko Fujii Tokyo Trio
Satoko Fujii is recognized as one of the world’s leading composers for large jazz ensemble but is also building a reputation for leading one of the most forward-thinking piano trios of our times with this, Jet Black, only the trio’s second recording. It follows 2021’s Moon on the Lake. While there may be a handful of reference points in the U.S. such as John Escreet, Matt Mitchell, and other Cecil Taylor acolytes, there is apparently nothing like the sound of this trio in Japan, and maybe even to your ears. Joining the pianist are bassist Takashi Sugawa and drummer Ittetsu Takemura, both leaders themselves and both not the least bit shy about expressing individual statements within the trio context. Giovanni Russonello of the New York Times summed up the sound more succinctly than this writer could possibly do with these words, “an improviser of rumbling intensity and generous restraint.”
Having reviewed a piano trio (that should go nameless for now) for another outlet, reflecting on the attributes that constitute a great piano trio, these criteria emerged with no particular order.
-the unpredictability of shifting tempos
-improvisation seamlessly flowing with through composed material
-adept use of space
-individual expression – three voices within the one
-diverse range of moods and atmospheres
-balance of sensitivity and unbridled intensity
-balance of lyrical warmth with moments of edgy dissonance
-for the listener: transportive in the moment, enduring memorability
Suffice to say that Fujii’s trio scores very highly on all these except arguably lyrical warmth (excepting “Sky Reflection”). On the other hand, there is more than a fair share of edgy dissonance and the unpredictability of shifting and complex rhythms throughout. And, for an attribute not listed above, fearlessness, her trio is off the charts. It certainly seems challenging for these three musicians to stay on the same page as they remarkably do. Unequivocally, the music is immediately urgent, transportive, and memorable. There are six Fuji compositions, beginning with “Along the Way” with its jolting, start-stop rhythm pattern and the vague melody constantly interrupted by surprising arco bass excursions and whirlwind drumming statements, and unexpected single notes and runs that resonate through her use of the sustain pedal. The latter sections of the piece bear little resemblance to the opening. “Gentle Slope” is more accessible with its pizzicato bass intro and the trio joining together on a tangible melody before the free ranging, rather wild improvisation takes hold. Yet, we still have the abrupt start-stop rhythms that keep us guessing. (This is not a trio that will induce sleepy dreaminess). This is the epitome of why Cadence magazine dubbed her “the Ellington of free jazz.”
Ah, those glistening, lyrical moments appear in “Sky Reflection,” a true standout with its glorious, seamless, colorful blend of composition and improvisation as the arco bass floats over Fujii’s jubilant piano to cap it. “From Sometime” begins with agitated bass and tinkling percussion, evolving into a rather mysterious labyrinth of intriguing, suspenseful improvisation, and playful, convivial interaction, marked by Fujii’s thundering left hand rolls spiced with flairs, almost like sparks flying off her right hand. “Take a Step” reprises many of the elements previously heard such as the start-stop rhythms, extended arco bass lines, but an eerie, edgy quiet not present on the preceding pieces. It proves to be Takemura’s opportunity to stretch out on the kit which he does with remarkably stirring dynamics, prodded on by his trio mates. The closing “Jet Black” is a much shorter piece, rather minimal in approach compared to the others, revealing glimpses of delicate restraint, which heretofore had not been present. So, like those infamous words of poet TS Eliot, she goes out with a whimper rather than a bang as for next few minutes the listener tires to collect oneself after being transported into this Fujii’s distinctive, often inexplicable sonic world.
- Jim Hynes
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