Back in the ’80s, I got a rise out of the eternally genial Dr. Billy Taylor by asking him—no disrespect, one culture worker to another—if it was a drag coming up with an unusual biographical angle when pitching a story to his producers at CBS News Sunday Morning. Stellar musicianship was all that mattered to him and his bosses, he protested. So I guess it was just coincidence that everyone he profiled was under 20 or over 80, a Soviet or Cuban émigré, schizophrenic, or a recovering addict or suffering from a rare bone disease and standing only three feet high. Jazz has fallen so far off the public radar since then, the ’80s feel like the good old days—the tail end of the era when Toshiko Akiyoshi, on arriving in the U.S. to enroll at Berklee in the 1950s, charmed nightclub audiences by playing bebop wearing a kimono. We’re more enlightened now, of course. A woman instrumentalist no longer stops the presses, and foreign-born players who transcend the derivative have become so commonplace no one regards them as a phenomenon anymore (except maybe scuffling and prejudiced natives decrying outsourced labor). The downside is that with these doors to feature stories closed, there’s almost no way for a relative newcomer as talented as the Japan-born pianist and composer Satoko Fujii to get herself discovered, even by the jazz press.
You’d think that putting out something like two dozen CDs in half as many years might do the trick, but no—the writers for Downbeat and its competitors are content to let advertisers make their discoveries for them, so Fujii’s many releases on her own label and European and Asian independents—which range from interesting to outstanding, but which you have to browse Downtown Music Gallery on the right day to find—haven’t had the impact of a heavily promoted debut for Blue Note or Concord Jazz. She also loses points for resisting the new stereotypes lazy writers fall back on in attempting to come to grips with what the British provocateur Stuart Nicholson, borrowing a page from Tom Friedman and sociologist Roland Robertson, calls the glocalization of jazz—in this case meaning that musicians from other countries are revitalizing jazz by blending elements from their own ethnic traditions. In an interview posted on her and her trumpeter husband Natsuki Tamura’s website, Fujii—who was born in 1958 and now divides her time between Tokyo and New York—explains that since the end of World War II, Japanese children have been exposed mostly to Western pop and classics, so when she first heard traditional Japanese music, it sounded as strange to her as it does to most Westerners.
Unless you judge pieces by their titles and define minor scales as Asian by definition, the only clues to Fujii’s ethnic identity offered by her voluminous discography are in the samurai chants toward the end of Tamura’s “Ochai,” from her 2003 big band album Blueprint (Natsat), and in her delicate accompaniments to the Japanese art-folk singer Koh Yamabuki on Koh (Libra, 2005). Listening blindfolded to Blueprint or The Future of the Past (Enja, 2001)—both recorded in New York and featuring an assemblage of downtown’s finest, including Tamura, Herb Robertson, Joe Fiedler, Ellery Eskelin, Tony Malaby, Andy Laster, Oscar Noriega, and Briggan Krauss—I might guess I was hearing a European orchestra. This may be a reflection of Fujii’s past as a classical piano prodigy, but it also seems an inevitable consequence of the emphasis on formal composition in avant-garde jazz the world over since the bottoming-out of free in the 1970s.
In jazz from Ellington on, composition has entailed predetermining solo sequences—knowing in advance not just whom to call on to sustain an established mood, but who can be trusted to anticipate what comes next. This is where Fujii excels, and why my list of recommendations begins with these two CDs by her New York orchestra. Even Fujii’s simplest scores are miniature suites, and the solos serve as relay points between themes. On a piece like the restless and intricately detailed “Pakonya,” from The Future of the Past, the solos are like cinematic close-ups or privileged moments: An improvisation might begin a cappella; another horn will join in for counterpoint, gradually followed by the rhythm section and then the full orchestra introducing a secondary theme over which the two horns squabble until . . . one solo yields to another, with no downtime between. Blueprint has more muscle and swagger because it has more unison passages, though for lyrical suspense nothing quite matches the orchestral pedal point beneath Noriega’s screams and Joey Sellers’s Rudd-y trombone on the other CD’s “Incompleted,” a performance that recalls ’70s Carla Bley without suffering from the comparison.
There isn’t much piano on either CD, presumably because Fujii is up on her feet conducting. For proof of her range as a soloist—by turns ruminative and darting, a personal composite of Paul Bley (her former teacher) and Cecil Taylor—try “Ninepin,” a rondo from Live in Japan 2004 (PJL), which adds Tamura’s tart, speechlike trumpet to her American trio with bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Jim Black. Harmony is on the prowl in Fujii’s compositions, and on last year’s Angelona (Libra), by her Japanese quartet (again featuring Tamura), Takeharu Hayakawa’s electric bass covers sonic territory an acoustic couldn’t—likewise true of Stomu Takeishi on Blueprint and The Future of the Past. The drummer on Angelona is Tatsuya Yoshida, from the Japanese noise band the Ruins, but this isn’t fusion—that would be Vulcan (Libra, 2001), featuring Fujii on synthesizer. She’s protean as well as prolific, and there are about a dozen other CDs I could name, beginning with April Shower (Eastwind, 2001), duets on which she and violinist Mark Feldman take turns as the classicist and the troublemaker. Beginning with the jazz cognoscenti, the world has an awful lot of catching up to do. I just hope nobody calls her the new Toshiko Akiyoshi.