When Satoko Fujii was four, she was so shy that she begged to quit kindergarten. In response, her parents sent her to piano lessons. It was the first step in the self-discovery of a genuinely avant-garde musical artist.
“With music we can be totally free and it is special for that reason—the best thing about music,” she declared over the phone 56 years later, from her home in Japan. “So I don’t want to limit myself.”
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The Japanese celebrate a person’s 60th birthday as kanreki, a time when one circle of life is completed and another begins. Fujii honored the tradition with an audacious undertaking: the release of a CD of new music for each month of her kanreki year of 2018.
She didn’t limit herself. There is an album of solo piano improvisations that flirt with melodies from some of her classic compositions (Solo, released in January) and a pair of large-ensemble discs that revel in bold symphonic color (Ninety-Nine Years by Orchestra Berlin, from March, and a disc from Orchestra Tokyo in December).
“Sometimes I see the whole sketch, the whole structure,” Fujii said of her large-ensemble writing. “But other times it is like the other writing but with more pieces.” Asked about the challenging twists and turns in the music, she added, “To tell you the truth, it was very difficult when I started my Orchestra Tokyo in 1997. Some of my bandmates told me, ‘Why do we have to play this complicated meter? What is the reason?’ I don’t know the reason. I just want to do that. I think we need to measure things to see if they have value, to be creative. We need to insist on what we want.”
Other Fujii kanreki releases include the French-Japanese quartet Kaze’s fifth disc of dynamic caterwauls and croons (Atody Man, in February) and the debut of a new quartet, Kira Kira, which bristles with energy on more composition-oriented material (Bright Force, in April). The semi-new trio This Is It! (Fujii’s former Tobira quartet minus one) delivered a live club disc, 1538—the temperature, in degrees Celsius, at which iron melts—in June, then came back in October for Weave, a collaboration with the percussive dancer Mizuki Wildenhahn.
“Kaze plays very soft to very loud; I like that kind of stuff,” Fujii said. “We want a lot of vocabulary and texture, sometimes melody but sometimes noise too.” As for Kira Kira, “we just let it go,” she said with a laugh. “Alister Spence plays Fender Rhodes and sometimes it is very loud and abrasive and that makes the other members more aggressive, I think.” She especially enjoys the playing of her husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura. “He sounds like there is no doubt, no question. He goes for it.”
Fujii has performed with Wildenhahn before, and cherishes their somewhat mystical connection: “It is completely improvised music. We share the space, the room, the moment. Even without watching her I can get something from her. Her technique is based on flamenco dance, so you can hear the percussion sounds, but at the same time it is important that we dance the sound. Not just me, the other musicians too; we shape it like a sixth sense.”
On Mizu, released in July, Fujii is lyrically probing in duets with bassist Joe Fonda, who also appears (on flute and bass) alongside soprano saxophonist Gianni Mimmo on the completely improvised outing Triad, released in May. Fujii doesn’t play at all on Diary 2005-2015, a two-CD November release containing 118 classical miniatures that arose out of her longstanding daily morning music-composing ritual; instead, Yuko Yamaoka handles the piano chores. (There are 200 score books of this material on sale separately at Fujii’s website.)
“I love playing with Joe because he is very free; he doesn’t put himself in a box, and that is inspiring,” Fujii enthused. “I am not that free. I feel like my life is a fight to get freedom. As a Japanese woman, there are so many things I learned that I should not do in society. So playing with Joe puts me in a very released position.”
Last but hardly least, a pair of discs from August and September tinker with sonic textures in a fascinating manner. The first is Mahobin: Live at Big Apple in Kobe, an improvisational quartet with Danish saxophonist Lotte Anker, electronics artist Ikue Mori, and Tamura. The second, Intelsat, is made up of duets between Fujii and Australian keyboardist Spence. Much of it is whisper-quiet, with both Fujii on piano and Spence on Rhodes often playing the insides of their respective instruments, although bells and gongs also make an appearance.
At the time of our conversation in October, Fujii had just finished all her work on the kanreki project. “I am so relieved,” she confessed. “It was not as easy as I thought at first. Especially in the middle of the year I started thinking maybe I should do something else. But I am very happy of what I did and I have begun to think about what is next.”
What, no vacation?
“What is vacation? I cannot just sit, I need to do something. And for me, music is the best thing to do. It just makes me very happy.”