Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii collects more than her share of Cecil Taylor comparisons. While deserved to some extent, they certainly do not tell the whole story. Listeners new to Fujii's work might, for example, have a hard time swallowing the Taylor tag when confronted with the heavy-rock underpinning Toh-Kichi (Victo), a live recording of the pianist in concert with Ruins drummer Tatsuya Yoshida. Not coincidentally, with the addition of Yoshida, Fujii exposes a much more tightly controlled, rhythmically centered side to her playing. She does erupt with forceful, Taylor-like gestures here and there, but they are framed largely by closely hewn, hard-charging interaction between the pianist and the drummer. At these unison moments, Yoshida sounds spot-on. When Fujii moves into freer places, Yoshida sounds less sure-footed. As odd as it might sound, Fujii's dark, majestic melodies on Toh-Kichi are found among bright, stabbing chords and aggressive rhythms, which give her a sound not unlike Jason Moran's-especially when, as on "Omjhonz," Fujii gives her playing a touch of R&B. For all the CD's moments of excitement, however, the recording is not without its excesses. Their nonsense vocals approach gimmickry and Yoshida could have very easily skipped the amplified zipper solo.
Yoshida returns for Fujii's quartet recording Minerva (Libra), and with him comes the pounding rhythms. In the larger setting, however, Yoshida takes a different strategy. The drummer doesn't try to interact so tightly with Fujii's volatile improvisations. Instead, Yoshida's drumming, paired with the blunt, belching sound of Takeharu Hayakawa's electric bass, emits a thick, bruising, rock-beat foundation that hits hardest on the explosive opening track, "Tatsu Take." Yoshida and Hayakawa practically dare Fujii and her trumpet-playing husband, Natsuki Tamura, to deal with it. Fujii and Hayakawa respond firmly but with sensitivity, and this is the contrast that gives Minerva its electric temperament. Nevertheless, Fujii herself doesn't quite play with the same manic energy as she does on Toh-Kichi, which points to a larger issue. On Minerva the larger group has largely curbed the excesses that run unchecked on the duo album, but to some extent they've also muted the visceral edge that drives Toh-Kichi.