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Trace A River by Satoko Fujii Trio

According to a recent interview, pianist and composer Satoko Fujii feels as if her music doesn't fit in anywhere - too odd for the jazz crowd, and too jazzy for the rock crowd. To me, this is a sure sign of artistic success, especially after having recorded 50-odd CDs as a leader and perhaps another 50 as a side-person and collaborator over the past 10 years. For someone as prolific and as restless as Fujii, the avoidance of genre-specific musical pigeonholes is a prerequisite for the continued vitality of her endlessly fecund artistry. Though Fujii currently leads several bands, including three or four different big bands, two or three different quartets, and a longstanding duo with trumpeter Natsuke Tamura, her primary creative outlet is a piano trio that features two other 21st Century jazz innovators: bassist Mark Dresser and percussionist Jim Black. This is a piano trio for the ages - a group whose oeuvre consistently smacks of genius.

Trace A River is the trio's sixth or seventh recording since its inception over a decade ago. Suffice it to say that the interaction between the three virtuosi is now beyond telepathic. Unlike most jazz piano trios, Fujii music's is essentially cooperative in nature - at different times during each of the seven pieces on this disc, each musician functions as a lead voice. Similarly, the written portions of Fujii's imaginative, multi-sectioned compositions receive as much weight as do the improvisations. Frequently the trio breaks up into various duo combinations, or stops entirely as an individual soloist launches an improvisation or plunges forward into a new compositional motif. Fujii's music has few constants, except for a tireless sort of forward-moving energy, and a never-ending quest for invention. The trio seems to take particular pleasure in negotiating the musical connective tissue that binds Fujii's odd musical juxtapositions together. In 'Take Right', a gently ruminative solo piano intro gives way to a brief burst of post-Cecil Taylor improvisational energy music before the first theme rides in on a wave of Black's punkish drum energy.

Elsewhere on Trace A River, Fujii and her trio abandon the ever-changing kaleidoscopic approach of pieces like 'Take Right,' 'Kawasemi,' and the sprawling title track for a steely single-mindedness and sustained focus. This comes to the fore on the CD's three ballads. 'Manta,' a haunting, folk-tinged lament that hangs in the air like a morning mist. This music slides into one's consciousness on Dresser's mega-glissandi and Black's spooky malleted gongs and cymbals as Fujii slowly moves from prepared piano to a more traditional approach. The extended melody is gauzy, trancelike. Dresser and Black support Fujii with drums and bass that are in constant flux while also somehow being totally in the pocket. This is truly remarkable music-making. Two piano solos, the dreamy 'Day After Tomorrow' and the darker, jazzier 'February' have a similar drifting mystery to them. The power of these pieces originates in their meditative concentration and detailed exploration of a relatively confined musical area.

Though Fujii, who studied at NEC with George Russell, Paul Bley, and Cecil McBee, derives artistic inspiration from sources as diverse as heavy metal, Japanese folk music, contemporary classical, and avant garde jazz, more mainstream influences also crop up in her music. In particular, the melody line of 'A Maze of Alleys' playfully conjures the work of Chick Corea before it explodes into a sequence of Don Pullen-like sweeps and runs. Dresser's solo on this piece is lush and expansive. Corea is hinted at again during Fujii's solo on 'Kawasemi,' another raucous ride that features Jim Black's spectacularly unhinged drumming and Dresser's complete re-imagination of his bass as a giant viola.

I don't know how Satoko Fujii does it, but she has created yet another indispensable recording. Her singularly energetic and inventive music is a wonder to behold. Trace A River is truly one of 2008's best jazz recordings, and belongs in the collection of all jazz fans who have a serious interest in the future of jazz piano, post-Cecil Taylor.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Satoko Fujii Trio
  • CD Title: Trace A River
  • Genre: Free Jazz / Avante Garde
  • Year Released: 2008
  • Record Label: Libra Records
  • Tracks: Trace A River, Take Right, Manta, A Maze of Alleys, Day After Tomorrow, Kawasemi, February
  • Musicians: Satoko Fujii (piano), Mark Dresser (bass), Jim Black (drums)
  • Rating: Five Stars
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