“I believe anything can be music... sound colors are as important to me as the melody.” Fujii's compositions are full of surprises with sudden shifts in direction and mood that challenge player and listener alike. Yet the extremes are always part of a greater conceptual whole, never mere exercises. The emotional demands are as great as the technical ones.
She uses melodies as simple and straightforward as a folk song, as well as the harmonic sophistication of great jazz, and she can manipulate the extended forms of symphonic composers. As an improviser, Fujii is equally wide-ranging and virtuosic. In her solos, explosive free jazz energy mingles with delicate melodicism and a broad palette of timbre and textures. Her phrasing is clean and clear and delivered with a bright, nuanced touch that's equally indebted to her classical training and her jazz experience.
She has showcased her astonishing range and ability on 29 CDs as leader or co-leader since 1996. Born in 1958, Fujii began playing piano at age four and received classical training until age twenty. Realizing that the improvisation that had come so easily to her as a child was now very difficult, she decided to stop playing piano and began a band in which the members would sing and clap their hands to explore the origins of music. One year later, she changed her focus to jazz improvisation, returning to the piano. She was inspired by her teacher, Koji Taku, a classical pianist and composer who at 60 quit his job as chairman of the piano department at Tokyo College of Art and Music to play jazz.
Fujii began private studies with another of her inspirations, the Japanese jazz pianist Fumio Itabashi, who performed with Elvin Jones and Ray Anderson. In order to pursue her own interest in jazz, Fujii left home because her parents wanted her to continue her classical studies at college. Once on her own, she struggled with the expense of renting a piano room and supporting herself. Fujii first came to the United States in 1985 on a scholarship to Boston's Berklee College of Music, where her teachers included Herb Pomeroy and Bill Pierce. After graduating in 1987 magna cum laude with a Diploma of Professional Music, she returned to Japan where her experiences included everything from performing at leading jazz clubs in Tokyo and Yokohama and teaching at the Yamaha Popular Music School to a seven-year stint playing keyboards for television and recording music for the JI software company.
Among the Japanese groups she worked with are Tobifudo, and Teruaki Todo. She also worked with the AACM's Joseph Jarman & Douglas Ewart Ensemble. Fujii is featured on a 1990 release with Tobifudo. In 1993, she returned to Boston, on a scholarship to New England Conservatory of Music, where her teachers included jazz greats George Russell, Cecil McBee and Paul Bley. After receiving her Graduate Diploma in Jazz Performance in 1996, Fujii's career really took off.
Her NEC professor, free jazz innovator Paul Bley was featured on her debut CD Something About Water (Libra; 1996), a recording of improvised piano duets that “Combines two piano voices in subtle, quiet interplay. The music has a crystalline spareness about it, the two players so intertwined it sounds almost like one voice. There is a floating lyricism to the music...like a delicate dance... sheer beauty.”--Michael Rosenstein, Cadence.
Her 1997 solo album Indication (Libra) was praised as a “brilliant collection of solo piano pieces.” by Michael J. Williams of American Reporter. In 1997 Fujii and her husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, released the duo CD How Many? (Leo Lab). She and Tamura had met in 1984 when Fujii was 26 and the house pianist in a cabaret big band in Tokyo. They recognized each other as kindred spirits.
“Our means of expression are very different,” she said in her jazzreview.com interview, “but our musical values are the same. Natsuki and I both think we can derive inspiration from anything when we want to make music. For example, I play inside the piano as well as on the keyboard. Texture, color, timbre, pulse, rhythm, and harmony are equally picked up as elements forming the whole.” Chris Kelsey of Cadence magazine wrote of their duet, “Together Tamura and Fujii construct perfect little structures; their collaboration is balanced, astute, and very musical.
A lovely album.” In 1998, Fujii released albums by two of her most significant ongoing projects-a classic piano trio featuring bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Jim Black, and her large ensemble, which she founded in 1997. “Playing in a big band and playing in a piano trio are very different experiences,” she told Williamson, “I don't want to put myself in a fixed position. That causes me to create a lot of formats.” Her piano trio recording Looking Out of the Window (Nippon Crown) earned wide acclaim and was chosen as a Top 10 CD of the Year by both Coda and Jazziz magazines. The big band's debut, South Wind (Leo Lab), was equally praised as “an enormously successful orchestral debut...
For those of you on the lookout for a state-of-the-art, end-of-the-millennium big band, it has arrived.” - Michael Davis, Option. “What makes her special is her developing gift for blending composition and improvisation, as well as a progressive vision that sees no boundaries within tonality and no restrictions within the avant-garde.” - Drew Wheeler, Jazz Central Station. Her 1999 Tzadik release, Kitsune-bi served as a kind of summary of her small group composing and performing up to that point, showcasing her in duo with her long-time associate alto saxophonist Sachi Hayasaka, with her New York trio, and her critically acclaimed solo playing. “Satoko Fujii negotiates the path between Cecil Taylor's hyper-kinetic dissonance and more meditative styles of piano players like Randy Weston and Abdullah Ibrahim... Fujii transforms jazz into something architectural, full of designed shapes that jut and jab at the silence of an enclosed space...an intimate album, full of interior explorations and adventures.” - Michael Kramer, New York Times.
In addition, Past Life (Libra) featured Fujii's composing for a sextet of cutting edge Japanese jazz players. The year 2000 brought the release of two orchestra CDs, Jo (Buzz) featuring her NY big band performing her “melodiously left-of-center compositions and those of her husband, Natsuki Tamura, with real verve...the lyrical edge of the players and the leaders' focused production make 'Jo' consistently involving.” - Billboard. Then the Japanese label East Works released Double Take featuring Satoko's New York big band on one CD and her Japanese big band on another in a fascinating juxtaposition. “I've had big band in New York and Tokyo for more than five years,” Fujii said in her jazzreview.com interview, “and I have learned to appreciate how they are different. For example, my Japanese orchestra players are mostly free jazz players, and my New York orchestra players are mostly Downtown musicians.
I think the Japanese free jazz players have a very strong influence from the '60s free jazz scene in American. They have a lot of energy, and when they play, they like to show that. Many times, their expression is very aggressive in a good way. New York Downtown musicians have strong influence from many kinds of music, like contemporary music, world, music, and jazz.
Their expression is very diverse. They also have great energy in a different way.” “Double Take seems like a musical future that's here already.” - Stuart Broomer, Coda. She also continuing exploring the potential of her explosive New York trio with their second album, Toward, To West (Enja) “Her most substantial and musically rewarding small group outing to date...Besides all of the purposeful soloing, sinuous flow and hard-edged musings, Ms. Fujii injects a potpourri of underlying themes and fluctuating cross-currents into her music...and perhaps the best is yet to come, as we watch her star rapidly ascend above the horizon! Highly recommended. ***** (out of 5)” - Glenn Astarita, All About Jazz. The trio's fourth release, Junction (ewe records), was one of three 2001 albums that also saw the restlessly creative Fujii branching out in arresting new directions.
April Shower (ewe Records), a duet with violinist Mark Feldman “marks another first-rate addition to the young pianist's growing discography.... striking a natural balance between tradition and experimentation, expectation and surprise” - Sam Prestiani, Jazziz. Then in the fall, came the radically different Vulcan (Libra Records), an avant-rock/free jazz fusion album featuring Takeharu Hayakawa, Tatsuya Yoshida, and Natsuki Tamura. Vulcan received wide, enthusiastic approval.
“The sensibility here is aggressive to the point of primitive, with a raw, larger-than-life recorded presence for the drums and bass. The otherworldly vocal wailing that introduces “The Sun in a Moonlight Night” is both a warning and an invitation to the intriguing asymmetrical structures and virtuoso playing on this set.” - Bill Bennett, JazzTimes. “Vulcan is choice work, a great showcase for the genius of jazz pianist Satoko Fujii... a masterpiece of jazz expression.” Fujii's second duo album with Tamura, Clouds (Libra), which earned high praise including spots on Coda's Top 10 CDs of the year list, was among four acclaimed CDs released in 2002.
Bell the Cat (Tokuma Japan), the fifth release by her New York trio “is a beautifully played, sumptuously recorded tour-de-force filled with stunningly mature music making... As we approach the year 2003, this very much seems to encompass the shape of jazz to come.” - David Prince, CD Now. It #5 in Swing Journal's 2002 Japanese Jazz Awards, Best of 2002 in Jazz Weekly, Best Piano Trio CD by Derk Richardson in the San Francisco Gate, and one of the Top 5 CDs of 2002 Masahiko Yu, CD Journal. Also released in 2002 was Toh-kichi (VICTO) a duo album with Fujii and Ruins drummer Tatsuya Yoshida recorded live at the Victoriaville Festival.
“If you relish the prospect of an intense duo dialogue engaged with the sound of surprise, this concert performance is well worth checking out.” - David Lewis, Cadence. Minerva (Libra/Jazzprint) another electrifying album by her quartet was selected as one of the Top 15 CDs of the year by Thomas Schulte, Outsight and hailed as “An awesome recording,” by Andy Hamilton in The Wire. In addition to those CDs, 2002 was a busy year for touring, as well. Fujii toured the US with her Japanese quartet in April and May, performed with Tatsuya Yoshida at the Victoriaville Festival in May, performed with her Japanese orchestra at Yamaha Hamamatsu Jazz Festival in June, toured Japan with her quartet (Mark Dresser, Jim Black and Natsuki Tamura), was composer-in-residence and performer at the Rova Saxophone Quartet's 25th anniversary celebration Rovate 2002 in San Francisco, and toured Europe with her Japanese Quartet. 2003 saw a similar range of activity, with the release of The Future of the Past (Enja), another CD with her NY Orchestra which has been called “awe-inspiring.” - Ariake Tanabe, musee.
Before the Dawn (Polystar) with her Japanese Big Band earned similar acclaim. “Each listen reveals new details in these pieces, though the energy and creativity of the playing grabs you from the outset. It's extremely vigorous and forward-thinking music at once. Don't miss out.” - Jason Bivins, Cadence.
Zephyros (Polystar/Not Two) came out at the end of 2003 and was selected as one of 2003's Top 5 Jazz CDs by Music Magazine and was also named a Top 10 CD in the Village Voice. In addition, Fujii performed with Tamura at the Vancouver Jazz Festival, and toured Europe with her Japanese Quartet. 2004 began with the release of Erans (Tzadik) another duo CD with drummer Tatsuya Yoshida, and a tour of the US in April that included a solo piano performance at the San Francisco Jazz Festival. She also toured Europe with OrkestraRova to support their CD An Alligator in your Wallet (EWE) on which she is featured, and Fujii received a Japanese Arts Council Grant for her Japanese performance with OrkestraRova and members of her Tokyo orchestra. Her first solo album in eight years, Sketches (Polystar) earned Top 10 status and was deemed a “masterfully crafted album” - New Music Box.
Her NY Trio's Illusion Suite (Libra) “is filled with thrill and joy of creation.” - Hiraku Aoki, Asahi newspaper. 2004 also saw two Orchestra CDs: Nagoyanian (BAKAMO) with the Nagoya Orchestra, and Blueprint (Polystar) with her NY Orchestra: “A fearless blend of postmodern influences that range from contemporary classical music to free jazz... Fujii's writing liberates soloists...” - Mark Holston, Jazziz. 2004 also saw Fujii featured on CDs by the Itaru Oki Unit: Itaru Oki Unit Live (Polystar); Natsuki Tamura Quartet: Exit (Libra); and Gebhard Ullmann: The Big Band Project (Soul Note). The spring and summer of 2005 again saw Fujii touring Europe and the US, as well as Canada.
Some highlights included a double duo concert Fujii and Tamura played at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam with renowned Dutch musicians Misha Mengelberg, piano, and trumpeter Angelo Verploegen and a performance at John Zorn's new club The Stone in April. The incredibly prolific pianist/composer was featured on five CDs in 2005: In The Tank (Libra) with Tamura and Elliot Sharp, Live in Japan 2004, recorded at the Egg Farm in Tokyo and featuring her trio (Mark Dresser, bass, and Jim Black, drums) with the addition of Tamura, Strange Village, Tamura's acoustic quartet release, and her first feature as an accordionist, Angelona, the fourth Fujii Quartet release, and Yamabuki, a trio date featuring accordionist Ted Reichman and vocalist Koh. Fujii's 2006 plans include nine new releases including the simultaneous release of CDs by Fujii Orchestras in NYC, Nagoya, and Kobe plus a DVD of Fujii Orchestra Tokyo; CDs with John Hollenbeck, Misha Mengelberg, Tamura, the Satoko Fujii Four, and Gato Libre. In addition, she'll be touring the US and Canada with the Japanese folk-music flavor of her new Satoko Fujii Min-yoh Ensemble. Fujii tirelessly continues to explore the possibilities and expand the parameters of the many groups she's established over the past nine years; there is certainly more provocative and exciting listening in store as she pursues her ultimate goals - “... to allow myself to do whatever I like without preconceptions. I would love to make music that no one has heard before.” Read more on Last.fm.
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