Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Dazzling group rapport sparks brilliant performance on Aspiration featuring Satoko Fujii, Wadada Leo Smith, Natsuki Tamura and Ikue Mori

The group chemistry is magical on pianist-composer Satoko Fujii's Aspiration, featuring an all-star quartet with trumpeters Wadada Leo Smith and Natsuki Tamura, and laptop player Ikue Mori. The nearly telepathic link among them takes the music into places where it grows ever deeper and more intuitive. Each track on the album is so vividly alive in the moment and with a character so distinct that it seems to become an animate thing independent of its creators. The artists are almost subservient to the music rather than the other way around. The album will be released September 8, 2017, via Fujii's Libra Records.

It's little wonder the album is so subtle and intimate, given the artists involved. Although this is the first time they have worked together as a group, there are ties among them that contribute to the music's beauty and coherence. Smith and Mori displayed an uncommonly close rapport during their duets on Smith's Luminous Axis (Tzadik). "I knew Wadada and Ikue had worked together before," Fujii says, "but that's not why I asked Ikue to join us. Natsuki and I had played with Ikue before on several occasions and we had a great time. When I started composing for the project with Wadada, I heard Ikue's sound in my ears." Of course, Fujii and Tamura share an intimate bond developed over several decades of working together and especially in their duo music, which they've recorded five times since 1997.

Once they came together in the studio, creating the music was easy, Fujii says. "I could feel a kind of calm confidence when we were together. I knew that we were going to make good music."

Fujii's intuition about the quality of the music proved correct. They venture into the mysteries and potentials - and the risks - of the quartet with fearless openness and discipline. On each track, every aspect of sound production is in spontaneous flux-rhythm, melody, dynamics, texture, density, silence. There is no telling where the music may lead. On "Intent," the unfixed quality keeps the listener on edge in anticipation of where the music will flow next. As the members of the band move in and out of the music, each sonic event blossoms with vibrant immediacy, and fades away as the music evolves. "Floating" opens with extraordinarily graceful piano from Fujii while Mori orchestrates textures and rhythms in parallel to her. About five minutes in, Smith makes a dramatic entrance and a three-way conversation ensues before Tamura brings the piece to a quiet ending. It's one of the most elusive and obliquely lyrical tracks on the disc, and there isn't a note out of place. Tamura's "Stillness" is a piece of complementary contrasts with a contemplative start that suddenly erupts into roiling energy and subsides. Again, there's a sense of inevitability that feels organic. Even the unaccompanied solos that crop up throughout the performances-for instance, Tamura's sculptural opening to "Evolution," or Fujii's solo later in that same piece-are shaped to function within the context of the composition.

Fujii, Smith, Tamura, and Mori gathered without preconceived notions about what must happen as they play. Instead they discovered together what the music could do, and nurtured it to its fullest expression. In the end, Aspiration is about more than music-it is about sharing and working together, about finding something beautiful and making it more so, and about the spiritual bonds that unite us all.
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 bandleader who gets the best collaborators to deliver," says John Fordham in The Guardian. In concert and on more than 80 albums as a leader or co-leader, she synthesizes jazz, contemporary classical, avant-rock and Japanese folk music into an innovative music instantly recognizable as hers alone. 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, leading Cadence magazine to call her, "the Ellington of free jazz." Her ultimate goal: "I would love to make music that no one has heard before."

Trumpeter and composer Natsuki Tamura is internationally recognized for his unique musical vocabulary blending extended techniques with jazz lyricism. This unpredictable virtuoso "has some of the stark, melancholy lyricism of Miles, the bristling rage of late '60s Freddie Hubbard and a dollop of the extended techniques of Wadada Leo Smith and Lester Bowie," observes Mark Keresman of Throughout his career, Tamura has led bands with radically different approaches. On one hand, there are avant rock jazz fusion bands like his quartet, whose album Hada Hada Peter Marsh of the BBC described this way: "Imagine Don Cherry woke up one morning, found he'd joined an avant goth-rock band and was booked to score an Italian horror movie." In contrast, Tamura has focused on the intersection of folk music and sound abstraction with Gato Libre since 2003. The band's poetic, quietly surreal performances have been praised for their "surprisingly soft and lyrical beauty that at times borders on flat-out impressionism," by Rick Anderson in CD Hotlist. In addition, Tamura has recorded five CDs in his ongoing duo with pianist (and wife) Satoko Fujii. Tamura also collaborates on many of Fujii's projects, from quartets and trios to big bands. As an unaccompanied soloist, he's released three CDs, including Dragon Nat (2014). He and Fujii are also members of Kaze, a collaborative quartet with French musicians, trumpeter Christian Pruvost and drummer Peter Orins. "As unconventional as he may be," notes Marc Chenard in Coda magazine, "Natsuki Tamura is unquestionably one of the most adventurous trumpet players on the scene today."

A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Music, trumpeter, multi-instrumentalist, composer, and improviser Wadada Leo Smith is one of the most boldly original and influential artists of our time. Transcending the bounds of genre or idiom, he distinctly defines his music, tirelessly inventive in both sound and approach, as "Creative Music." For the last five decades, Smith has been a member of the legendary AACM collective, pivotal in its wide-open perspectives on music and art in general. He has carried those all-embracing concepts into his own work, expanding upon them in myriad ways. Smith received the 2016 Doris Duke Artist Award and earned an honorary doctorate from CalArts, where he was also celebrated as Faculty Emeritus. In addition, he received the Hammer Museum's 2016 Mohn Award for Career Achievement "honoring brilliance and resilience." In 2017 Smith topped three categories in DownBeat Magazine's 65th Annual Critics Poll: Jazz Artist, Trumpet and Jazz Album (for America's National Parks on Cuneiform.)  Smith was also honored by the Jazz Journalists Association as their 2017 Musician of the Year as well as the 2017 Duo of the Year for his work with Vijay Iyer.  Born December 18, 1941 in Leland, Mississippi, Smith's early musical life began at age thirteen when he became involved with the Delta blues and jazz traditions performing with his stepfather, bluesman Alex Wallace. He received his formal musical education from the U.S. Military band program (1963), the Sherwood School of Music (1967-69), and Wesleyan University (1975-76).

Smith has released more than 50 albums as a leader. His 2016 recording, America's National Parks, a six-movement suite inspired by the scenic splendor, historic legacy, and political controversies of the country's public landscapes, earned a place on numerous best of the year lists including the New York Times, NPR Music and many others. Smith's landmark 2012 civil rights opus Ten Freedom Summers was called "A staggering achievement [that] merits comparison to Coltrane's A Love Supreme in sobriety and reach."

Laptop musician, composer, and percussionist Ikue Mori first gained attention in the late '70s as the drummer in the seminal No Wave band DNA, with fellow noise pioneers Arto Lindsay and Tim Wright. In the mid '80s she started in employ drum machines in the context of improvised music. While limited to the standard technology provided by the drum machine, she nevertheless forged her own highly sensitive signature style. In 2000 she started using the laptop computer to expand on her already signature sound, thus broadening her scope of musical expression. Mori has released more than 20 albums as a leader or co-leader with innovative bands such as Mephista with pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and drummer Susie Ibarra; and Phantom Orchard with harpist Zeena Parkins. She is a frequent member of ensembles led by John Zorn, and was a featured soloist with Ensemble Modern on guitarist-composer Fred Frith's Traffic Continues (Winter & Winter). Her most recent releases are Obelisk with Courvoisier, Okkyng Lee, and Jim Black; and Highsmith, a duo with pianist Craig Taborn, both on Tzadik.

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