Satoko Fujii’s oeuvre is monstrous. The Japanese pianist issues several CDs a year, often in batches of two or three, and in totality they represent nothing if not the very definition of an iconoclastic artist. Her style is free, rough and aggressive, her compositions challenging to both listener and musician. Her new album Yamiyo Ni Karasu “(“the crow in the dark night”), by a sort-of-new quartet called Tobira, mixes occasional flashes of accessibility with her uncompromising vision.
Tobira is actually her New Trio, with bassist Todd Nicholson and drummer Takashi Itani, plus her husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, who often joins the trio onstage as a guest. Here, Fujii formalizes the relationship and renames the group “Tobira,” which is Japanese for both “front door” and “title page.” (“I wanted to open the door to bring some fresh air to the music and keep it from becoming closed,” Fujii writes in the liner notes.)
The disc starts with what sounds like static, but it’s Tamura blowing air through his trumpet. Over the 14 minutes of “Hanabi,” we are treated to sweet piano phrases, pounded attacks, battered percussion and lovely trumpet passages-a narrative that ebbs and flows with notes instead of words. Nicholson saws and bangs his strings simultaneously to open the 10-minute “Run After a Shadow,” and freedom ensues; eventually Fujii organizes a rhythm and chord structure, and suddenly the band is rocking. At four minutes “Fuki” qualifies as an interlude, but it’s a violent one, all thick chords, smacked toms, thwacked bass and alarm-call trumpet. Even odder, it’s followed by the half-impressionistic “Wind Dance,” with Fujii turning briefly introspective-briefly because, in Fujii’s restless world, a song doesn’t adhere to a particular aesthetic for very long.
Two more 10-minute epics follow: a swirling, cyclonic beast called “Centrifugal Force” that stands among Fujii’s most intense works, and “Potential Energy,” which begins in restrained fashion but quickly grows stormy, intense and defiant, everybody rumbling at the same time. The title track closes the disc with sparse, unorganized noise: squeals and squeaks, crashes and plinks. She may have released more than 70 albums over the past 20 years, but Satoko Fujii still brims with originality and energy. Yamiyo Ni Karasu rises to the top tier of her sprawling discography.