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Satoko Fujii Trio: Trace a River

Pianist Satoko Fujii celebrated her 50th birthday by issuing three CDs on the same day: one by her New York-based trio, one by her trio Junk Box, and one by Gato Libre, a quartet led by her husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura.

Fortunate for us that Fujii is so prolific (at least 30 albums under her own name this decade). Some of us can’t get enough of her. She has become a force to be reckoned with over the years, blending a classicist’s thought process with a free-jazzer’s spontaneity. Unlike some improvisers, she is at her most creative when she is explosive. And she explodes a lot.

Trace a River opens with a missile. The first two minutes of the title track are pretty, almost pastoral, and then, without warning-bang!-Fujii, bassist Mark Dresser, and drummer Jim Black go at it, full bore. Their animation rises and ebbs before flowing gently toward its conclusion. Fujii delivers a masterful unaccompanied solo that ends thunderously, inviting Black to pound almost indiscriminately-and loudly-and Dresser to pluck a hiccupping bass line. When they finally all come together, they get into a groove, but one whose time signature is difficult to identify (and, one supposes, to play). Black, who plays with a harsh, metallic tone, often becomes the dominant voice in his ensembles, but here he is a perfect complement to Fujii’s fusillade of notes and chords. Even an atmospheric piece such as “Manta” and a playful one such as “A Maze of Alleys” sound unsettling in the hands of Fujii, Dresser and Black. This release is right up there with the trio’s 2002 album Bell the Cat!

Junk Box-Fujii, Tamura and percussionist John Hollenbeck-goes a little deeper into avant-garde territory. Just listen to “Chilly Wind”: While Fujii repeats a single note over and over with her left hand, Hollenbeck scrapes his drums and then bats them with mallets, and Tamura’s trumpet moans and groans like some sick cow. The intensity escalates, and before you know it, Hollenbeck is drumming rock-style, Tamura is blowing with abandon, and Fujii is banging chord upon chord into her keys, then stroking the strings inside the case. Tamura ends his run by blowing air. “Chinese Kitchen” winds itself into a hurricane, with Hollenbeck hitting all manner of toys and the other two musicians playing in no discernible key. This sort of devil-may-care approach to improvisation pervades Cloudy Then Sunny. Even the song titles convey that attitude. How can you resist tunes with names like “Computer Virus,” “Opera by Rats” and “Alligators Running in the Sewers”?

Gato Libre is a different beast altogether. Tamura is the leader here, and Fujii plays accordion throughout; they’re joined by guitarist Kazuhiko Tsumura and bassist Norikatsu Koreyasu. Their music seems to emanate from many different parts of the planet and yet from none of them. I hear tango, flamenco, Eastern European folk melodies-all sorts of things-and yet no one song is a tango, is a flamenco. This is what makes Kuro so attractive. It all sounds so familiar-Spanish? Italian?-and somehow you can’t place its origins.

The compositions are all Tamura’s, so you haven’t heard them before. The musicians play with elegance and respect for the written form; the absence of percussion makes that all the more evident. The waltz “Patrol” is an interesting piece of writing, one where the lead voice alternates among trumpet, accordion and guitar from measure to measure. “Battle” has its participants gearing up for one, as they each make opening statements before waging war on one another, all in the name of improvisation. Elsewhere, there is nothing but loveliness. The closing title track is an exercise in creating simple beauty.

Dropping three albums in one day is no great accomplishment for someone like Satoko Fujii. Dropping three great albums like these-well, that’s another matter entirely. Keep them coming, Satoko.

Originally Published