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An Interview with Satoko Fujii ...the musical expression of herself

Piano player Satoko Fujii has defied conventions throughout her career as she has sought to find her own voice among the wide variety of musical influences she has received--and sought out. Having studied classical piano throughout her childhood, Fujii finally reached the point in her development where she found it most important to become introspective and discover, first, her true identity, and then the musical expression of her self. Once she developed confidence in her musical beliefs, she refused to compromise, even to the extent of sacrificing commercial success in her native country of Japan.

American audiences are in for a treat. Not only has Fujii and her husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, released a freely improvisational and impressionistic CD called Clouds, but also they are touring the United States. Rarely venturing beyond her home cities of Boston and New York when she lived in the U.S., Fujii now will be performing for the first time in cities like Portland, Oregon, Houston and Los Angeles. Thus, a wider audience will be exposed to the unique textures and colors that Fujii and Tamura have developed during their musical journey, which includes residencies in two countries, moving beyond traditional musical forms and expressing emotional honesty.

Continually exploring various musical formats such as big band, solo, duo or quartet, Fujii never ceases to surprise audiences with her inexhaustible curiosity and her constantly shifting results. Here is what Satoko Fujii has to say about her life and her music.

JazzReview.com: What was the conceptual basis for your new CD, Clouds?

Satoko Fujii: Our only decision was to record some duo music. Our first duo CD, How Many? had been recorded in 1996. Very few copies of the CD are now left at the label, LEO. We wanted to record some new material instead of re-pressing How Many? When we recorded How Many? we picked the title of the piece, and then we tried to get some images from the title before we improvised. When we recorded Clouds, we didn’t have any preconceived ideas about the music, including the title of the CD, before we played.

JazzReview.com: Did you and Natsuki produce the CD yourselves?

Satoko Fujii: I arranged some music for NDR in Hamburg, Germany after Gebhard Ullmann, a saxophone player and composer retained by the band, asked me to do that. He involved four arrangers, including me, from four countries. The project involved two concerts in Hamburg and Hannover, as well as including some broadcasting.

I told NDR that I would like to work with the band, and then they asked me if I could lead it. We met so that Natsuki and I could record some music in their studio instead of leading the band. Natsuki and I knew that their studio and piano are outstanding, and so we were happy with this offer. NDR provided us their big and beautiful studio, a great engineer and a producer, Katja Zeidler. It was the first time I worked with a female producer. I was very excited about that because I didn’t know any free-lance female jazz producers until then.

I had decided to go to Germany because I was very curious about European big bands. I had had big bands in New York and Tokyo for more than five years, and I have learned to appreciate how they are different. For example, my Japanese orchestra players are mostly free jazz players, and my New York orchestra players are mostly Downtown musicians. I think the Japanese free jazz players have a very strong influence from the ‘60’s free jazz scene in America. They have a lot of energy, and when they play, they like to show that. Many times, they expression is very aggressive in a good way. New York Downtown musicians have strong influences from many kinds of music, like contemporary music, world music and jazz. Their expression is very diverse. They also have great energy in a different way.

JazzReview.com: Who plays in your Japanese and New York big bands?

Satoko Fujii: I call my Japanese big band the Satoko Fujii Orchestra East. It has in it Sachi Hayasaka, Kunihiro Izumi, Hiroaki Katayama, Kenichi Matsumoto and Ryuichi Yoshida on saxophones; Natsuki, Tsuneo Takeda, Yoshihito Fukumoto and Takao Watanabe on trumpet; Haguregumo Nagamatsu, Tetsuya Higashi and Hiroshi Fukumura on trombone; Toshiki Nagata on bass; Masahiro Uemura on drums; and me on piano. My New York big band is called the Satoko Fujii Orchestra West, and it consists of Oscar Noreiga, Briggan Krauss, Ellery Eskelin, Tony Malaby, and Andy Laster on saxophones; Natsuki, Laurie Frink, Steven Bernstein and Herb Robertson on trumpet; Curis Hasselbring, Joey Sellers and Joe Fiedler on trombone; Stomu Takeishi on electric bass; Aaron Alexander on drums; and me on piano.

I actually made a two-CD set called Double Take. One CD is by my New York orchestra, and the other is by my Tokyo orchestra. I think that differences of all kinds, including musical, make the world interesting and rich.

JazzReview.com: The tracks on Clouds involve colors and textures, rather than melody and changes. So, the music is more visual than aural. How do you accomplish the depictions?

Satoko Fujii: Natsuki and I both think we can derive inspiration from anything when we want to make music. For example, I play inside the piano as well as on the keyboard. Texture, color, timbre, pulse, rhythm and harmony are equally picked up as elements forming the whole.

JazzReview.com: Do you plan to record more duo CD’s?

Satoko Fujii: Yes. We would love to record more music. Our two duo CD’s were made from pure improvisation, but we also enjoy making music by playing our own compositions. So, we probably will play some written music on our next CD.

Natsuki just started his new quartet with a guitar player (Takayuki Kato), a drummer (Koji Shibata) and me on synthesizer. I don’t play piano at all in this unit. Natsuki uses a simple electric effector on his horn. In addition to synth, I also use a MD Walkman and a CD Walkman like samplers. We also would like to develop this concept by using even more textures from electronic instruments.

JazzReview.com: How do you distribute your CD’s in the United States?

Satoko Fujii: I am manager of my label as well as of my bands. Of course, many people do help me a lot. North Country Distributors, which is associated with Cadence magazine, distributes our CD’s in the United States.

JazzReview.com: You’ll be touring the U.S. this month. Did you arrange the tour yourselves?

Satoko Fujii: I received an e-mail message from the Painted Bride Art Center last year, and that was the first gig we booked. I decided to build a U.S. tour to leverage our expenses associated with traveling from Japan. It was not easy to get gigs, but many people helped me make it possible. I am not famous and rich enough to have a booking agent in the States. People who help me do so because they like my music--which makes me very happy. As you know, our music does not have commercial appeal, and so we cannot make a lot of money. The only way that we can repay the people who have helped us is by making beautiful music. I really appreciate the help of many people. Most of them, I haven’t met.

JazzReview.com: Who are some of the people who helped you?

Satoko Fujii: I made a friend in Texas through the Internet. He loves music. I asked him if he knew someone who could book my group, and he gave me the names of some event organizers. Once I e-mailed some of these contacts, they also gave more the names of even more organizers.

JazzReview.com: Where are you are most excited to play?

Satoko Fujii: I cannot choose the one city that would be the most exciting because I am so excited about playing in all of the locations in the tour. I went to school in Boston and spent six years there, and so it is very special for me to perform there. Tonic in New York is one of my favorite clubs, and I had a great time when I used to live in New York City. I haven’t performed in any of the other cities in my tour [Portland, Maine; Philadelphia; Austin, Texas; Houston; San Diego; Hollywood, California; Portland, Oregon; Oakland, California; and Victoriaville, Quebec]. Because I will be playing in these cities for the first time, it will be thrilling as well.

JazzReview.com: What kind of music influenced you most strongly?

Satoko Fujii: I always loved to listen to all kinds of music--not just jazz. The first jazz record that affected me strongly was A Love Supreme. That was a great experience for me--to be so moved by something that I could not understand.

JazzReview.com: Were you able to play jazz in Japan before you went to Berklee?

Satoko Fujii: I had studied privately with Fumio Itabashi, a Japanese piano player who was in Elvin Jones’s and Ray Anderson’s groups. And I was a house pianist with some big bands in cabarets in Tokyo. We played the music of Duke Ellington, Count Basie and many others.

JazzReview.com: Who were the early influences on your style? You’re compared to Cecil Taylor sometimes. Is he an influence?

Satoko Fujii: I was a big fan of Fumio Itabashi. I also love the music of Bill Evans and Abdullah Ibrahim. I didn’t listen to Cecil Taylor very much.

JazzReview.com: You’re more involved in avant-garde jazz. Did you start out playing traditional jazz and evolve?

Satoko Fujii: When I was at Berklee, I tried to develop into a good bebop pianist. But I never felt that bebop is my music. I was like a typical teenager who wanted to be "cool." The word "jazz" sounded very hip and cool to me. But the music "jazz" didn’t feel as appealing to me.

JazzReview.com: How did you decide to study at Berklee?

Satoko Fujii: I was a professional pianist in a cabaret big band in Tokyo when I decided to enter Berklee. I wanted to concentrate on practicing and studying jazz, and so I wanted to study in school. Besides, it was not difficult for international students to enter Berklee because of the school’s English requirement. I didn’t apply for a scholarship when I entered Berklee, but I got one during my second semester.

JazzReview.com: Who were some of your teachers at Berklee?

Satoko Fujii: I studied with Herb Pomeroy, Bruce Thomas and Bill Davis there. I studied with Jerry Bergonzi on a private basis.

JazzReview.com: How were you able to graduate in 2 years?

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Satoko Fujii
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