Min-yoh is a form of Japanese folk music, arcane even in Japan, and avant-garde pianist Satoko Fujii tries her hand at it on Fujin Raijin. She’s assembled a quartet of musicians sympathetic to that aim, guiding them through four originals and two traditional tunes (which bookend the album). This valiant effort is also a difficult one, but penetrating it yields ample, if uneven, rewards.
When it works, the music is glorious. “Champloo” comprises fortissimo after joyful fortissimo of frenzies on Fujii’s keys and husband Natsuki Tamura’s trumpet, punctuated with experimental passages for the various instruments. Some of these passages work better than others; they tend to dissolve into maddeningly sustained accordion tones (courtesy of the ever-arduous Andrea Parkins) and Fujii playing with the piano strings. The traditional “Kariboshi Kiriuta” begins with the challenging stuff and evolves into a lovely dirge sung by Fujii—min-yoh is a vocal tradition—with Tamura’s trumpet and Curtis Hasselbring’s trombone alternately dominating the accompaniment. Somehow, these Japanese folk melodies, even this most “ethnic” one, sound curiously like Western classical music and show tunes.
About a third of the time, however, the ensemble veers into the abstruse. Oddly, the other traditional piece, opener “Itsuki No Komoriuta,” is the least comprehensible: There are some pretty fragments, but they’re not worth enduring the gobbledygook surrounding them. “Slowly and Slowly,” by contrast, is well-assembled but still somehow unsatisfying. One inscrutable third is enough to weaken the overall disc, but the two-thirds of good music is worthwhile.