Satoko Fuji Tokyo Orchestra-Peace: Album Review

Satoko Fuji is perhaps Japan’s most notable Free Jazz composer.  Having played with the likes of Myra Melford, Tony Malaby, and Mark Feldman, Fuji has managed to set-up big bands on different continents and string together a handful of duo and trio recordings across her 20+ year career.  On Peace, there’s no shortage of fantastic improvisation and intriguing compositional choices.  The album kicks off with portraits of duos and solos within her Tokyo-based big band ensemble, with huge messy interpolations from the whole band stringing everything together.  Then we get a bit of impressionist pentatonicism, an especially chaotic number, and a cool modal piece.  There are certain aspects that make the album a bit of a tough listen.  The four tracks don’t necessarily relate to each other all that well and the first track is a bit excessive and doesn’t come to an especially satisfying resolution.  Still, Fuji’s band shines and her place in the jazz community is clear.

At 32-minutes in length, “2014” is naturally a going to have smaller microcosms within the overall mass.  First, we get some textural trumpet experimentation from—I think—Natsuki Tamura.  Harsh noise is wrenched from the instrument, immediately filling the track with tension.  Eventually drummers Akira Horikoshi and Peter Orins enter to interact with the solo, gradually adding a notion of meter to the room.  Then, the band buds in with a dramatic, rising melody as Tamura finally enters a more straightforward trumpet playing space to utter some heavy hitting hard-bop lines.  At around the seven-minute mark, the cycle repeats as the band recedes to full silence to yield attention to a duo of saxophone and trombone, with drums and bass also taking hold of the spotlight later on.  The time on the track is exceptional.  The band maintains immense forward momentum in both completely free time and straightforward 4/4 with the drummers providing a sort of spectrum between the two.

The issue I find with this track is that each of these components don’t necessarily resolve, which is intentional as Fuji is crafting a larger narrative to the track, but even the ending bass solo sort of just stops.  So, again there’s not really a resolution.  Thus, the track just ends up being a sort of circulating timeline without a feeling of closure.  Even the flow from one idea to the next is a bit questionable.  Although the drummers are able to connect the dots as the band transitions from open to free, the return to space is not nearly as gradual.  To hold a 30-minute track together, there needs to be a strong development and a logical series of events leading to a final conclusion, I feel as though this one missed the mark.

The other three tracks on the record are much more concise.  “Jasper” is an undeniably beautiful piece of music featuring some breathtaking work from Sachi Hayasaka on soprano sax.  Hayasaka’s tone is so pure that in places you can’t even discern the identity of the instrument.  The track thrives on pentatonic scales, which yield picturesque tone color.  Completed first by subtle drones, Hayasaka is able to work with subtlety and motivic development.  Later the track digs in a bit with stinger chords in the trumpet section coming at a lethargic quarter-note pace, allowing Hayasaka to show off some flashier licks.  Fuji’s ability to orchestrate while maintaining an emphasis on improvisation shines here.  There’s a pleasant simplicity to the work she gives her band that only uplifts improvisation without dictating too much of the natural flow of for the moment sound.

“Peace” takes a pretty maximal approach to improvisation with complete madness setting in at the first downbeat.  At first, you get the impression that a screaming saxophone player is going to attempt to take on Fuji’s double drum set-up, but then another sax takes a crack at it (and so on).  This is why the track works though.  The ideas bounce from player to player to match the natural frantic edge that music at this speed is going to have. Rather than having one guy spit as much out as possible, you get some input from a bunch of players making for a really interesting piece.  This track also does a bit of a better job than the first in transitioning from a huge wall of sound to open space.  Instead of a complete fade out the band almost folds back the curtains leaving a saxophone line—one that’s already occurring—in open space.  This technique might have made the “2014” a bit more cohesive.

Another possible issue with the album is the flow from track to track, which is most apparent at the last track. “Beguine Nummer 3” is a bit of a floating modal track that really comes out of nowhere considering the Avant garde edge of the rest of the work.  Of course, the music is well executed and Tamura delivers another especially musical solo, it just really comes out of nowhere.

Peace is not a perfect album, but I didn’t come away feeling entirely unsatisfied.  Players of this magnitude are never going to fully disappoint and despite some issues with flow, the vigor with which Fuji inspires her ensemble to approach every waking moment of her composition inspires focus throughout.

-Donovan Burtan

6.5/10

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