Satoko Fujii: Four And More
“ I've been told many times that people don't understand my music because it's too difficult, but I don't know what they mean by 'difficult' or 'easy.' For me, sometimes straight-ahead jazz sounds too difficult. ”
For pianist Satoko Fujii, 50 is the new 20.
That refers to her age, although you could almost believe it refers to the number of albums she's released in 2008 alone. Fujii appears on four records this year: a trio session called Trace A River (Libra, 2008); a quartet session with her band ma-do called Heat Wave (Not Two, 2008); a session with a completely different trio called Cloudy Then Sunny (Libra, 2008); and an album with the band Gato Libre (led by her husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura) called Kuro (Libra, 2008).
Four albums in a year may seem like a lot, but it's just another year in the studio to Fujii, who is one of Japan's most celebrated and prolific pianists and composers. After spending many of her formative musical years in the United States, Fujii now lives in Tokyo, where she continues to find new ways of bringing her favorite musicians together to play creative improvised music.
All About Jazz: How do you keep track of all the musical projects you have going on at any one time?
Satoko Fujii: It's hard to explain, because I just do the things that I want to do. I'm not making plans one by one and doing things in a very organized way. I just pick something I'd like to do and continue.
AAJ: How did you first get together with your "New York trio" with bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Jim Black? I know this band has been together for about 10 years. How did you first hook up with them?
SF: I used to live in New York City. After I graduated from the New England Conservatory in Boston, I moved to New York City in 1996. My husband, Natsuki, and I tried to go many jazz clubs to listen to music. I heard many interesting things in the city, and I especially liked Mark Dresser and Jim Black. They didn't play in the same band, but I had a feeling that I could get together with them to make a band.
AAJ: They sound incredible together and with you. How much of the music on Trace A River happened spontaneously in the studio, and how much did you plan in advance?
SF: I write many pieces, and I brought pieces to the session. But I don't like to be a dictator. I really wanted Mark to play his way and Jim to play his way. I bring material and they make music from out of it. I would say 20 percent is written and 80 percent is developed from out of it.
AAJ: I think that makes this record even more impressive because there are moments where the three of you are in such harmony. It must be a thrill to play in that setting.
SF: We've been playing together for more than 10 years. Some people think that if we keep playing together for too long, we'll lose the fresh feeling. But that is not true. The more and more we play together, we actually feel much more excited to play together.
AAJ: On your other project, Heat Wave, my understanding is that the composition style was very non-traditional.
SF: I don't use any rules. I don't want to limit myself. So I don't apply any musical theory or chord progressions or traditional ways of writing music. I just pick the notes I like. I feel like they're there and I just found them. Sometimes I write some scales or some feeling or mood. I want to make the players develop spontaneous ideas from out of that.
AAJ: You must have to work with people you really know and trust in order for that to be successful. In addition to your husband, of course.
SF: Exactly. I'm the happiest musician in the world, because all my players that I play with are so great. I don't need to do anything, because they already make music beautifully. I just ask them to play with me. That's all I do.
AAJ: When I listen to an album like Heat Wave, I always wonder what the composer thought the album would sound like when he or she walked into the studio. Does Heat Wave sound like what you thought it was going to sound like?
SF: I know many great composers who can listen to the sound [in their heads] when they write the music. But in my case, I sometimes cannot think about that. I'm lucky, because even if I can't think of something, I can get more things from playing with someone else. So when I entered the studio with my music, I imagined a little. But I always end up having much more than I expected.
AAJ: Natsuki Tamura gets amazing non-pitched sounds out of his trumpet. All kinds of squeals and vocal sounds. It's fascinating. Is it surprising to you sometimes to hear what comes out of the bell of his horn?
SF: I really like that kind of sound. I love noises. My parents listen to very traditional music, and they are not crazy about my stuff. My mother once said to Natsuki, "How come you play like choking pigs? You can make beautiful sounds with your horn, so why do you play like that?" [laughs] We really like that expression. It sounds great. Choking pigs. [laughs]
AAJ: Will you talk about the bassist and drummer in the ma-do band?
SF: I've been playing with the bassist for a long time. More than 20 years. When I graduated from Berklee College of Music, and before I went to NEC, I had been playing some standard stuff, like traditional jazz stuff. I played in many jazz clubs in Tokyo and in hotel lounges. I played with him very often.
AAJ: We should say his name, which is Norikatsu Koreyasu.
SF: Yeah, it's very difficult. It's too long. [laughs] Even for Japanese.
He's got a great sound and he's got a very open mind. He plays many different kinds of music. I like his approach a lot. He also plays in Natsuki's band, Gato Libre. He really cares about tambre. Sometimes after the show, after we've ended playing, he's still tuning. [laughs] He's a guy like that. I think bass players are like that.
AAJ: So let's talk about your drummer.
SF: His name is Akira Horikoshi. He plays in my big band in Tokyo. He's a little younger than the other people in the band. He started playing rock, I think because his older brother was a big rock fan. But he learned many different styles, and he's got the technique to play a lot of world music or straight-ahead jazz or big band stuff. I really like his approach because his drums don't sound like drums. His approach is more like a Japanese taiko approach than like typical drum-kit technique. Even when he plays straight-ahead jazz, it sounds like Japanese music. Very simple and a deep sound.
AAJ: When he first started playing with you in this more free context, was it difficult for him?
SF: Do you know Yosuke Yamashita? He's part of the first generation of free jazz pianists in Japan. Very out. He sounds like Cecil Taylor. Akira was the drummer in his trio for a long time, so he's really familiar with this kind of music. He's more happy playing free stuff.
AAJ: You mentioned the Gato Libre project. On their new record, Kuro, you play accordion. When did you pick that up?
SF: Well, there's a story. I think Natsuki invited me to play accordion because I don't have any chops. [laughs] So he thought he could make me be quiet. With accordion, I have no technique, so I have to pick something I really like and play very little. Natsuki wanted me to do that. That's his decision, not my decision. That's one reason.
Another reason is that there is a jazz club in Tokyo that has very good curry, but they don't have a piano. I wanted to eat curry there, so I had to choose something to do. [laughs]
AAJ: I don't know how many musical decisions have been made because of curry...
SF: Sometimes musicians are that simple, I think. [laughs]
AAJ: This Gato Libre project sounds very influenced by folk music. Is that a conscious influence?
SF: I don't think Natsuki planned anything like that. He wrote the pieces without any idea. It just came from his heart, and it ended up having a European folk music feeling. But that was not his plan. He just wrote something that he wanted to play, and it ended up like that.
AAJ: CD number four this year features you and Natsuki and percussionist John Hollenbeck. The band is called Junk Box and the album is called Cloudy, Then Sunny. Can you talk about how you and John Hollenbeck first began playing together?
SF: He's such a great composer. When he plays with his band [The Claudia Quintet], he's not just a player. He's more like a musical director and composer. But he's a great drummer and I really wanted to play with him. He has such a free sense. So instead of writing something with notesthe traditional way, notationI just used my way to write music and asked him to play. We made two albums because I really enjoyed our first album and wanted to develop it more.
AAJ: You turn 50 in October. Happy birthday, by the way. You could easily slow down now, but you released four albums this year. Why are you still so energetic and passionate about playing?
SF: I don't know. [laughs] I do the things that I want to do. That's just ended up meaning five or six albums a year. I sometimes have gotten some complaints from record companies, because they have a hard time selling my CDs, and if I make more, it's harder for them. But I just can't stop. I think I'm addicted.
AAJ: What kind of audience is there in Japan for the kind of music you make?
SF: There are certain people, not many, who love this kind of music. But if you go to jazz clubs in Tokyo, there are many clubs with straight-ahead hard bop stuff. Many Japanese jazz fans love that kind of music. If you count the jazz clubs in Tokyo, we have many more than in New York City. But I think there are maybe three clubs in Tokyo where I can play. I think in other places people will throw eggs or tomatoes. [laughs]
I think this is very common thing, not just in Tokyo. I think it's the same in New York or other places, too.
AAJ: I think people who don't try to listen to this music are really missing out. You don't really need any education in music to appreciate this music.
SF: I think the music that I make is much more accessible for people who don't know about jazz or don't have any music education. I think hard bop is difficult to listen to. When I was at Berklee, I wanted to be a very good bebop pianist. So I listened to [saxophonist] Charlie Parker every night before I went to bed, and every night I had nightmares. [laughs] So I think that kind of music needs some study to understand. There are many chord progressions and a lot of tensions.
I think my kind of music is more like just feeling something. I've been told many times that people don't understand my music because it's too difficult, but I don't know what they mean by "difficult" or "easy." For me, sometimes straight-ahead jazz sounds do difficult.
Satoko Fujii ma-do, Heat Wave (Not Two Records, 2008)
Gato Libre, Kuro (Libra Records, 2008)
Satoko Fujii, Trace A River (Libra Records, 2008)
Junk Box, Cloudy, Then Sunny (Libra Records, 2008)
Carla Kihlstedt/Satoko Fujii, Minamo (Henceforth Records, 2007)
Satoko Fujii Min-Yoh Ensemble, Fujin Raijin (Les Disques Victo, 2007)
Satoko Fujii Quartet, Bacchus (Muzak, 2007)
Satoko Fujii Orchestra Kobe, Kobe Yee!! (Crab Apple Records, 2006)