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Satoko Fujii Four: Live in Japan

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Pianist and composer Satoko Fujii has released over 20 albums in the past decade, and Live in Japan 2004 is one of her best. Teamed with trumpeter (and husband) Natsuki Tamura, bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Jim Black, Fujii crafts ripe compositions that drift from structured melody to open-ended abstraction. The centerpiece, the 36-minute “Illusion Suite,” is a tour de force. Here, Fujii’s sharp chords and cascading runs recall Cecil Taylor and her former mentor Paul Bley, as they pull Tamura’s breathy tones through cycles of heavy activity and subtle restraint. But the pointed power of Black and the winding range of Dresser make the remainder of the album just as transfixing, especially the masterful closer “An Insane Scheme,” which mixes hair-raising sections of near silence with dramatic, pulse-quickening explosions.

Angelona, a studio recording made a few months after Live in Japan, is surprisingly less interesting. Here Fujii and Tamura are joined by bassist Takeharu Hayakawa and drummer Tatsuya Yoshida, member of hyper noise-punk duo Ruins. The break-neck opener “An Alligator in Your Wallet” suggests a raucous set, as the band sprints frantically to match Fujii’s maniacal piano figures. Unfortunately, the rest lacks such abandon, suffering from a dearth of conversational fire. Fujii labors valiantly to cut notches into her group’s smooth tone, and her sharp-turning melodies are engaging. But the band executes her compositions robotically, turning any possible edge into gloss. “Collage-in the Night” is an energyless ballad, while the humorous swings of “A Poor Sailor” get lost in a flood of too-shiny sound. The band finally gels on the looser “Cicada,” an abstract, unpredictable collection of sounds and riffs. But too much of Angelona sounds incomplete, like a body stripped of flesh and blood.