Tuesday, May 13, 2014


New CDs from Fujii's Orchestra New York and Tamura's Gato Libre offer fresh, compelling music from longtime working bands, to be released May 27, 2014 on Libra Records.

Pianist-composer Satoko Fujii and trumpeter-composer Natsuki Tamura, the most boundlessly creative husband-wife team in new jazz, are each renowned for the depth and variety of their music. Between them, they have recorded with more than 25 different ensembles to encompass the full range of their creativity. But for their latest releases, they both return to longstanding groups. Fujii's Shiki is the ninth release with her New York Orchestra to appear over the last 18 years. Tamura convenes a slightly reconfigured Gato Libre, his working quartet since 2005, for DuDu, their fifth release. The surroundings may be familiar but the music launches fearlessly into the unknown.

Shiki is dominated by the 40-minute title piece, a vast, eventful composition on which Fujii reaches for "something beyond," she says. "I wanted to paint a picture that extends beyond its canvas. I composed for life, which has many stages and changes and dramas." The title, which means "four seasons," suggests the changeability of the composition, one of the most monumental musical architectures Fujii has ever constructed. Written and improvised parts occur in a wide range of combinations-from unaccompanied solos to collective improvisations, from completely written passages to integration of one or more soloist and composition. 

Soloists include some of the foremost new jazz innovators in New York, including saxophonists Tony Malaby and Ellery Eskelin, trumpeters Herb Robertson and Steven Bernstein, and trombonist Curtis Hasselbring and Joe Fielder. Two other pieces, Fujii's prayerful "Gen Himmel," a tribute to the late bassist Norikatsu Koreyasu, and Tamura's comically antic, "Bi Ga Do Da," round out one of the most varied and adventurous CDs in the orchestra's storied career.

"This New York orchestra is like a miracle for me," Satoko says. "These great musicians give me such inspiration to compose and they contribute their own creativity as well. When I compose, I think about the band's sound and it brings out so much of my own creativity. I grow as an artist each time I work with them."

Tamura was unsure of the fate of Gato Libre after the unexpected death of its bassist Koreyasu, a founding member of the quartet and an important voice in the group's sound. After deciding to keep the band going, Tamura auditioned several new musicians in concert, looking for the right person to help the band continue. "When Yasuko Kaneko performed with the band it felt right," he says, "Her trombone timbre matched the band well and she has a sweet and wonderful personality." Gato Libre was reborn.

DuDu (Libra), the new configuration's first recording, shows not only how well Kaneko has fit into the group, but also how much her presence has allowed Tamura to take the band in new directions. Tamura's compositions and the quartet's performance display the same careful attention to group sound and balance as before, but there are different sounds and new rhythmic possibilities opened up by the trombonist's mellow, subtly textured approach. 

Tamura's arrangements of the title track, "Scramble," and "Rainy Day" keep the group wheeling through different instrumental combinations for slow, kaleidoscopic shifts in timbre. "Gato" showcases many sides of Kaneko's playing, from the melodically inventive unaccompanied solo that opens the track to the nuanced sounds that complement Tamura in a duet section. 

Tamura's solo on "Nanook" keeps firmly within the spirit of the composition while looking for new ways to express that spirit, blending calm lyricism with stormy sound abstractions. On "Cirencester," guitarist Kazuhiko Tsumura etches his taut lines on silence, backed by discrete ensemble chords and in duet with Fujii's accordion. Fujii is often a self-effacing presence in the ensemble, yet she perfectly captures the essence of each piece, from her introspective, dissonant musings on "Rainy Day," to her whimsical and frenetic playing on "Mouse." Once again, Tamura's compositions effortlessly incorporate references to folk traditions including Eastern Europe and flamenco, as well as jazz for a rich, slightly surreal, and unpredictable music. 

Critics and fans alike hail pianist and composer Satoko Fujii as one of the most original voices in jazz today. She's "a virtuoso piano improviser, an original composer and a band-leader who gets the best collaborators to deliver," says John Fordham in The Guardian.  In concert and on nearly 60 albums as a leader or co-leader, the Japanese native (now based in Berlin) synthesizes jazz, contemporary classical, avant-rock and Japanese folk music into an innovative music instantly recognizable as hers alone. Her most recent group, the Satoko Fujii New Trio with bassist Todd Nicholson and drummer Takashi Itani, released their debut recording, Spring Storm in 2013. "It is tempting to say the very focused, often gorgeous and always thought-provoking Spring Storm Š is her best work to date," wrote Dan McClenaghan in All About Jazz. 

Over the years, Fujii has led some of the most consistently creative ensembles in modern improvised music, including the ma-do quartet, the Min-Yoh Ensemble, and an electrifying avant-rock quartet featuring drummer Tatsuya Yoshida of The Ruins. She has also established herself as one of the world's leading composers for large jazz ensembles. Since 1996, she has released a steady stream of acclaimed releases for large ensemble and in 2006 she simultaneously released four big band albums: one from her New York ensemble, and one each by three different Japanese bands. Her ultimate goal: "I would love to make music that no one has heard before."

Natsuki Tamura is internationally recognized for a unique vocabulary that blends extended techniques with jazz lyricism. "As unconventional as he may be, Natsuki Tamura is unquestionably one of the most adventurous trumpet players on the scene today," notes Marc Chenard in Coda magazine. Throughout his career, this unpredictable virtuoso has led bands with radically different approaches. Most recently, he has led First Meeting, a quartet featuring pianist Fujii that explores extremes of sound abstraction and formal fragmentation. Since 2005, Tamura has focused on the intersection of European folk music and jazz with Gato Libre. The quartet's poetic, quietly surreal performances have been praised for their "surprisingly soft and lyrical beauty that at times borders on flat-out impressionism," says Rick Anderson in CD Hotlist.

In contrast, the Natsuki Tamura Quartet, an earlier band led by the constantly exploring trumpeter, was a high-energy noise rock-jazz fusion group of overwhelming power. Since 1997, his ongoing duet with Fujii has recorded five CDs and won accolades from critics and audiences alike. In addition to the intimate duo performances, Tamura collaborates on many of Fujii's projects. He and Fujii are also members of Kaze, a collaborative quartet with French musicians trumpeter Christian Pruvost and drummer Peter Orins.

Whether in new bands or in well established ones, Satoko Fujii and Natsuki Tamura always push themselves and their music to new heights. Their two latest CDs are no exceptions.

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