“Whether performing with her orchestra, combo, or playing solo piano, SatokoFujii points the listener towards the future of music itself.” ― Junichi Konuma, Asahi Graph
“Satoko is truly one of the few great originals on the piano today.” ― Luigi Santosuosso, All About Jazz Italia
“She is the Ellington of free jazz.”—Bob Rusch, Cadence
Critics and fans alike hail pianist and composer SATOKO FUJII as one of the most original voices in jazz today. A truly global artist, she tours internationally leading several ensembles based in Japan, Europe, and the United States. Just as her career spans international borders, her music spans many genres, blending jazz, contemporary classical, rock, and traditional Japanese music into an innovative synthesis instantly recognizable as hers alone. Her wide-ranging compositions can incorporate the simple melodies of folk song, the harmonic sophistication of jazz, the rhythmic power of rock, and the extended forms of symphonic composers. Although Fujii’s compositions are full of sudden shifts in direction and mood, the extremes are always part of a greater conceptual whole. Both the 2018 El Intruso International Critics Poll and the New York City Jazz Record recognized her as one of the musicians of the year. In addition, the 67th Annual Downbeat International Critics Poll voted her among the top composers, arrangers, and pianists of 2018 and her orchestra was ranked highly as well. As an improviser, Fujii is equally wide-ranging and virtuosic. In her solos, explosive free jazz energy mingles with delicate melodicism and a broad palette of timbre and textures.
Born on October 9, 1958 in Tokyo, Japan, Fujii began playing piano at four and received classical training until twenty, when she turned to jazz. From 1985 to 1987, she studied at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, where her teachers included Herb Pomeroy and Bill Pierce. She returned to Japan for six years before going back to the US to study at the New England Conservatory in Boston, where her teachers included George Russell, Cecil McBee, and Paul Bley, who appeared on her debut CD Something About Water (Libra, 1996).
Since then Fujii has been an innovative bandleader and soloist, a tireless seeker of new sounds, and a prolific recording artist in ensembles ranging from duos to big bands. She has showcased her astonishing range and ability on nearly 100 CDs as leader or co-leader. With each recording or new band, she explores new aspects of her art.
Between 1997 and 2009, her New York trio with bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Jim Black released seven critically acclaimed CDs. Cadence magazine described the group as “Beautiful and exciting by turns, and sometimes both at once.” Jason Bivins in Signal to Noise praised the “dynamite unit” for its “improv delirium, hot grooves, and melodic dances.” In 2004 Fujii’s husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, joined the trio to form the Satoko Fujii Four, which released the critically acclaimed Live in Japan 2004 and 2006’s When We Were There.
At the same time, she and Tamura began documenting their intimate duo music. By now, the pair has made six CDs for various labels in Europe and Japan. “As creative pairings go, there are none who surpass trumpeter NatsukiTamura and pianist Satoko Fuji. . . .The duo’s commitment to producing new sounds based on fresh ideas is second only to their musicianship,” says Karl Ackerman in All About Jazz. Dave Wade of WMPG described their latest CD, Kisaragi (Libra, 2017) as, “beautiful, cinematic, the aural equivalent to technicolor… a wonderful odyssey in sound.”
In 2001 came the radically different Vulcan (Libra Records), an avant-rock/free-jazz fusion album by a new group, the Satoko Fujii Quartet featuring Tatsuya Yoshida of the Japanese avant-rock duo, The Ruins. “The sensibility here is aggressive to the point of primitive,” said Bill Bennett in JazzTimes. “Vulcan is … a masterpiece of jazz expression.” Between 2001 and 2007, each of the Japanese quartet’s five albums, including Zephyros (Polystar, 2004) and Angelona (Libra, 2005), received equally enthusiastic approval. Toh-Kichi, her duo with the quartet’s drummer Yoshida, released CDs in 2002 and 2004. After a gap of 15 years, they released their third collaboration, Baikamo(Libra), in 2019.
Even as she led these disparate small ensembles, moving with equal vigor in widely divergent directions, Fujii embarked one of the most important aspects of her career—composer, leader, and soloist with some of the most innovative large jazz ensembles of the past twenty years. Cadence magazine dubbed her “the Ellington of free jazz.” In 1996, she founded Orchestra New York, which boasts the cream of New York’s contemporary avant-garde improvisers, including saxophonists Ellery Eskelin and Tony Malaby, trumpeters Herb Robertson and Steven Bernstein, and trombonist Curtis Hasselbring, among others. Lucid Culture hailed their 2016 CD, Fukushima (Libra Records), a meditation on the 2011 Japanese nuclear power plant disaster, as a “harrowing milestone in jazz history” that “ranks with the greatest of Shostakovich’s symphonies or Charles Mingus’ jazz broadsides.” Their latest release, Entity (Libra Records) came out in 2019. Over the course of 11 albums, Fujii has “reinvigorated the big-band concept for the new century – and placed herself at the forefront of the style at the same time,” according to Marc Chénard in Coda.
Orchestra Tokyo, founded a year later in 1997, draws on that city’s best improvisers, and has recorded six CDs to date. Critic Budd Kopman called their last CD, Kikoeru: Tribute to Masaya Kimura (Libra, 2018) “a cathartic, full-circle tribute to lives that have touched the composer and been integral to her music. … the most powerful and accessible entry from the collective.” Writing in All About Jazz, Dan McClenaghan praised the band for its “Power, exuberance, fierce soloing . . . moments of beauty, serenity, delicacy interspersed with seismic Elvis Costello ‘Pump it Up’ percussion/bass modes that lead into gentle classical harmony… Fujii is an absolutely essential listen for anyone interested in the future of jazz.”
However, Fujii’s creative ideas for large ensemble cannot be fully encompassed by a mere two big bands, and she has gone on to work with two others—Orchestra Nagoya, with which she has recorded three CDs since 2004, and Orchestra Kobe. In 2006 she released an unprecedented four big band CDs—one by each of these orchestras—at one time.
Even four orchestras are not enough for the prolific composer-improviser. At the 2013 Chicago Jazz Festival she premiered a fifth big band, the Satoko Fujii Orchestra Chicago. In 2014, she added Orchestra Berlin to her growing list of large ensembles, and has released two CDs with the band. Derk Richardson in The Absolute Sound wrote that their debut album,IchigoIchie, “swells in oceanic crests from which its musicians soar wildly. The four-part title suite repeatedly builds to thrilling, noisy, near-hysterical climaxes.”
As the new century progressed, Fujii continued to establish new ensembles. In 2007, Fujii formed ma-do, a quartet which included Tamura on trumpet, bassist Norikatsu Koreyasu, and Akira Horikoshi, the drummer in Orchestra Tokyo. The group showcased the latest developments in her composition for small ensembles, while playing in a more intimate acoustic setting that contrasted with the high-volume, rock-influenced Quartet. They made three impressive CDs before the tragic death of bassist Koreyasu in 2011. Alan Young in Lucid Culture called their second release, Desert Ship, a “characteristically fascinating, emotionally varied, richly melodic one by her pretty straight-up small combo ma-do…. Another triumph for this extraordinary composer.”
In 2006, she established yet another acoustic quartet, the Min-Yoh Ensemble with Tamura, trombonist Curtis Hasselbring, and accordionist Andrea Parkins. Dedicated to developing written and improvised music in the collective spirit of Japanese folkloric music, the band made two CDs. Writing in All About Jazz, Budd Kopman called their debut, Fujin Raijin, “a stupendous, almost terrifying record that shatters any and all expectations during its six tracks… If any music has the ability to change one’s life, this is it, making Fujin Raijin a powerful experience in which to revel.”
In 2013, Fujii set off on a fresh musical adventure with the Satoko Fujii New Trio, featuring bassist Todd Nicholson and drummer Takashi Itani—her first piano trio since 2009. The group released their debut recording, Spring Storm, that same year. “It is tempting to say the very focused, often gorgeous and always thought-provoking Spring Storm—with its delicacy versus strength dynamic, and melodic beauty beside the articulate and challenging interplay—is her best work to date,” wrote Dan McClenaghan in All About Jazz. With the addition of trumpeter Tamura in 2014, the trio expanded into a quartet called Tobira and toured North and South America. Their debut release, Yamiyo Ni Karasu, “rises to the top tier of her sprawling discography,” according to Steve Greenlee in JazzTimes.
In addition to leading her own ensembles, Fujii has engaged in many collaborative projects and ad hoc groups, and appeared as a member of ensembles led by others. With violinist Carla Kihlstedt, she has made two CDs, including Minamo, which Ben Ratliff of the New York Times says “is extraordinary, a series of tight, dramatic events.” She has also released a limited edition duo recording with pianist Myra Melford, Under the Water. A meeting between Fujii and Tamura and Dutch pianist Misha Mengelberg and trumpeter Angelo Verploegen is documented on Crossword Puzzle. Her recent collaboration with bassist Joe Fonda, documented on 2016’s Duet, was called “miraculous” and “a bravura performance” by All About Jazz. Increasingly since 2013, she and Tamura are joined by special guests, such as laptop musician Ikue Mori and British guitarist John Russell, as they tour around the globe. She has also toured and recorded with saxophonist Larry Ochs’ Sax and Drum Core, and appeared on albums by drummer Jimmy Weinstein, saxophonist Raymond McDonald, and Japanese free jazz pioneer, trumpeter Itaru Oki. She is a regular member of Tamura’s groups, Gato Libre (in which she plays accordion) and First Meeting, and played synthesizer in his quartet between 2002 and 2004. In recent years she has worked with dance and music ensembles featuring percussive dancer Mizuki Wildenhahn. Dos Dos includes Wildenhahn and percussionist Faín S. Dueñas, a founder of the Grammy-nominated Radio Tarifa; Hakidame ni Tsuru features trumpeter Tamura, as well as percussionist Takaaki Masuko, and guitarist Usui Yasuhiro.
Making their recorded debut in 2011, the international quartet Kaze, features Fujii and Tamura along with trumpeter Christian Pruvost, and drummer Peter Orins from France. Kaze has earned wide acclaim. As Virginia Schaefer said of a live show she covered for JazzTimes, “Intense and playful, down-to-earth and international, Kaze communicates in a musical language of contrasts and continuity.” Jon Garelick writes in Giant Steps, “Kaze takes jazz abstraction to a sublime limit…. There is suspense, virtuosity, mystery, calm.” Their debut recording Rafale (2011) earned acclaim from Mark Medwin in The New York City Jazz Record, as “a stunning achievement from note one…” Derek Stone wrote in The Free Jazz Collective that their most recent album, Atody Man (Libra Records, 2018), “Kaze have played to their strengths— the exquisitely dramatic melodicism, the bombast, the fearless experimentation. As a result, they’ve turned out one of the finest and most diverse albums of their eight-year tenure.”In addition, Kaze appears as special guests with Orchestra Tokyo on their 2016 release, Peace. In 2016 Kaze expanded to include a second pianist, Sophie Agnel, and a second drummer, Didier Lasserre, to become Trouble Kaze, which released an album in early 2017.
Fujii tours as relentlessly as she records. She has appeared live on every continent except Antarctica, performing at festivals, concert halls, and clubs. In 2013, she was honored with three nights on which to present her music at the Bielefeld Festival in Germany. In August and September of that year, she presented a week of music by several of her bands at The Stone in New York City.
The year 2016 marked Fujii’s 20th anniversary in music as well the 20th anniversary of Libra Records, which has released most of her recordings. To celebrate, she embarked on a worldwide tour that included completely improvised solo concerts once a month in Europe, the US, and Japan; concerts in which she and Tamura were joined by special guests; and performances by several of her small and large ensembles, past and present.
During her 60th birthday year in 2018, a milestone known as Kanreki in Japan, Fujii celebrated by releasing one new CD a month. In keeping the tradition of reflecting on the past while looking forward to the future, the 12 albums included releases by groups that Fujii has led or been part of for years, such as Kaze, Orchestra Berlin and Orchestra Tokyo, as well as new groups and collaborations. Among the CDs by new groups or groups making their recording debut, were Live at Big Apple in Kobe (Libra), by Mahobin, a cooperative quartet featuring Lotte Anker, Ikue Mori, and Natsuki Tamura; Weave (Libra), a CD/DVD package by a quartet featuring percussive dancer Mizuki Wildenhahn; and two collaborations with Australian keyboardist Alister Spence—Bright Force (Libra) and intelsat (ASM). In addition, Fujii released a solo piano album called simply Solo (Libra) and Mizu (Long Song), a duet with bassist Joe Fonda, as well as Diary (Libra), a double CD of through-composed music for piano, performed by Yuko Yamaoka. Her newest working trio, This Is It!, made its recorded debut on 1538 (Libra), as well. All in all, it was a stunning and diverse collection of new music.
Fujii tirelessly continues to explore the possibilities and expand the parameters of the many groups she’s established over the years, and there is certainly more provocative and exciting listening in store as she pursues her ultimate goal: “I would love to make music that no one has heard before.”