Japanese pianist and composer Satoko Fujii may have small hands but more than compensates with a big conception, realizing its expression through a bewildering range of vehicles. A full house at London’s Vortex Jazz Bar hosted her latest project, the Ma-do Quartet, partway through their first European tour.
Classically trained, Fujii switched to jazz in her early twenties, graduating from Berklee School of Music in 1987, and later from the New England Conservatory of Music in 1996. Since then she has not looked back, with over 45 releases to her name, spanning solo to orchestral, some with people as feted as Paul Bley, Mark Dresser and John Hollenbeck, but most with names unfamiliar to Western audiences.
One near-constant has been her husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, who once more joined the pianist in her Ma-do Quartet, completed by bassist Norikatsu Koreyasu, and young drummer Akira Horikoshi, who gained his spurs with veteran Japanese free pianist Yosuke Yamashita. Together they navigated two sets of virtually continuous performance, notable for tight unisons, sudden switchbacks, melodious arrangements and adventurous interplay and soloing, linking pieces from their excellent Heat Wave (NotTwo, 2008) offering.
Tamura’s unaccompanied trumpet provided a delicate and beautifully understated opening to the first set. Soon the combination of gentle tapping on the bass fretboard, plucked piano strings, and percussive rimshots first underpinned then enveloped his lyrical musings. A bass riff emerged from the dense undergrowth, stalking a knottily themed march, interspersed with asymmetrically-placed half-valve grace notes. All changed again for a strongly melodic bass solo, shaded by malletted cymbals, before a piano outburst led to another tricky unison theme. All this and the evening was barely underway. You could certainly see the benefit of the hard touring, with the band adroitly negotiating abrupt shifts in dynamics, but without throttling the spontaneous invention.
Fujii orchestrated from the piano stool, providing the cues within and transitions between pieces, at one point essaying rippling glissandos as she turned over the sheets on the piano, and the band lined up the required scores. As a pianist, her strong left hand drove the band through the unpredictable charts, but she was an equally adept soloist energizing into free flurries with the flat of her hands as she ran up and down the keyboard with an almost Tayloresque logic. Like many contemporary keyboard players, she extended her range by delving into the piano’s innards, using sticks to extract percussive textures or dampening the strings for nuanced effect .
This interweaving of diverse textures and techniques hallmarked the band’s aesthetic, with Tamura likewise peppering his melodic expositions with distorted smears, growled raspberries, and swirling breath sounds. On bass Koreyasu extracted a full-bodied tone from his hired instrument, straying into baroque realms but equally comfortable working in a language of moaning, creaking bowed sonorities. Horikoshi’s fluent stickwork and forceful cymbal play roistered in the thick of the ensembles, occasionally rocky or funky, but other times sweeping gracefully round his kit in free falling abandon, as in the solo opening the second set.
“Up To The Skies,” which closed out proceedings, commenced with a litany of arco scrapes, layered over stately piano chords, before the entrance of a more melodic passage of bowed long tones, echoed by Tamura’s rhapsodic trumpet. As the measured lines petered out, the emphasis reverted to the lone bass atmospherics, becoming frayed and wavering for a very downbeat, yet satisfying, conclusion to a breath-taking evening’s music.