Pianist and composer SATOKO FUJII, “an improviser of rumbling intensity and generous restraint” (Giovanni Russonello, New York Times), is one of the most original voices in jazz today. For more than 25 years, she has created a unique, personal music that spans many genres, blending jazz, contemporary classical, rock, and traditional Japanese music into an innovative synthesis instantly recognizable as hers alone. A prolific composer for ensembles of all sizes and a performer who has appeared around the world, she was the recipient of a 2020 Instant Award in Improvised Music, in recognition of her “artistic intelligence, independence, and integrity.”
Since she burst onto the scene in 1996, Fujii has led some of the most consistently creative ensembles in modern improvised music. Highlights include a piano trio with Mark Dresser and Jim Black (1997-2009), and an electrifying avant-rock quartet featuring drummer Tatsuya Yoshida of The Ruins (2001-2008). In addition to a wide variety of small groups of different instrumentation, Fujii also performs in a duo with trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, with whom she’s recorded eight albums since 1997. She and Tamura are also one half of the international free-jazz quartet Kaze, which has released five albums since their debut in 2011.
Fujii has established herself as one of the world’s leading composers for large jazz ensembles, prompting Cadence magazine to call her “the Ellington of free jazz.” Since 1996, she has released a steady stream of acclaimed albums for jazz orchestras and in 2006 she simultaneously released four big band albums: one from her New York ensemble, and one each by three different Japanese bands. In 2013 she debuted the Satoko Fujii Orchestra Chicago at the Chicago Jazz Festival and two years later debuted the new Satoko Fujii Orchestra Berlin.
With 2016 marking her 20th year in creative music, Fujii performed solo concerts once a month in cities around the world, her duo with Tamura performed with special guests, and she presented concerts with her small and large ensembles.
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 with the Kanreki tradition of reflecting on the past while looking 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 with Australian keyboardist Alister Spence; Mahobin, a cooperative quartet featuring Lotte Anker, Ikue Mori, and Tamura; and a new trio, This Is It!
In addition to playing accordion in Tamura’s Gato Libre, she pursues a fruitful collaboration with bassist Joe Fonda. Together, the duo has released four recordings, sometimes adding guests like Tamura and Gianni Mimmo. In 2019, she recorded Confluence, an album of intimate, highly interactive duets with drummer Ramon Lopez.
When the pandemic forced her to stay home for more than a year, she remained musically active, converting her home practice room into a recording studio and producing her seventh solo album, Hazuki; and a duet with Tamura, Keshin. She also collaborated with Ikue Mori on Prickly Pear Cactus which was made by swapping sound files over the internet, and explored the use of computer editing to shape a solo release, Piano Music.
“Whether performing with her orchestra, combo, or playing solo piano, Satoko Fujii points the listener towards the future of music itself,” writes Junichi Konuma in Asahi Graph. Fujii’s ultimate goal: “I would love to make music that no one has heard before.”
“Fujii’s music troubles the divide between abstraction and realism. . . . All of this amounts to abstract expressionism, in musical form. But it’s equaled by her rich sense of simplicity, sprung from the feeling that she is simply converting the riches of the world around her into music.” —Giovanni Russonello, New York Times
“Over the decades, Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii has demonstrated uncanny power and musicality as a considerable force in the avant-garde end of the jazz spectrum. At once an assertive and keenly conversational player, she readily adapts to varied settings…This music is infused with a wide-open spirit.” — Josef Woodard, DownBeat
Pianist and composer SATOKO FUJII, “an improviser of rumbling intensity and generous restraint” (Giovanni Russonello, New York Times), is one of the most original voices in jazz today. For more than 25 years, she has created a unique, personal music that 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. As an improviser, Fujii is equally wide-ranging and virtuosic, mingling explosive free jazz energy with delicate melodicism and explorations of the piano’s timbres and textures. A prolific composer for ensembles of all sizes and a performer who has appeared around the world, she was the recipient of a 2020 Instant Award in Improvised Music, in recognition of her “artistic intelligence, independence, and integrity.”
Born on October 9, 1958 in Tokyo, Japan, Fujii studied at the Berklee College of Music and New England Conservatory, both in Boston. Since then, she has showcased her astonishing range and ability on more than 100 CDs as leader or co-leader.
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.” At the same time, she and Tamura began documenting their intimate duo music. To date, the pair has made eight CDs for various labels in Europe and Japan. “As creative pairings go, there are none who surpass trumpeter Natsuki Tamura and pianist Satoko Fuji. . . .The duo’s commitment to producing new sounds based on fresh ideas is second only to their musicianship,” says Karl Ackermann in All About Jazz.
In 2001 came the radical 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. Between 2001 and 2007, each of the Japanese quartet’s five albums received enthusiastic acclaim. Toh-Kichi, her duo with 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 on 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. 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. 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.”
Fujii’s creative ideas for large ensemble could not be fully realized with only two big bands, so she founded 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 at one time, one by each of her orchestras. In 2014, she added Orchestra Berlin to her growing list of large ensembles, and has released two CDs with the band. All About Jazz called their second album, Ninety-Nine Years, “thought-provoking listening to be sure; continually absorbing and unlike anything else.”
As the new century progressed, Fujii continued to establish new ensembles. In 2006, she formed 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. 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.
Fujii and Tamura joined master French composer-improvisers, trumpeter Christian Pruvost and drummer Peter Orins in 2010 to form the collective quartet Kaze. Now with five CDs to their credit including their recording debut in 2011, Kaze “redefines listening to music, redefines genres, redefines playing music” (Stef Gjissels, Free Jazz Blog). For their fifth album, Kaze invited laptop artist Ikue Mori to join them. Writing in All About Jazz, John Sharpe called it a “well-judged amalgam of adventurous and empathetic ensemble playing, and striking individual flight.”
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 monthly completely improvised solo concerts in venues across Europe, the US, and Japan, as well as concerts with Tamura and special guests, and performances by her small and large ensembles.
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 with the tradition of reflecting on the past while looking 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 new groups or groups making their recording debut were Mahobin, a cooperative quartet featuring Lotte Anker, Ikue Mori, and Natsuki Tamura; 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, and 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.
In 2019, Fujii teamed up with two of Japan’s most in-demand improvisors—drummer Ittetsu Takemura and bassist Takashi Sugawa—to form Tokyo Trio, her first piano trio since 2013. They recorded their debut CD, Moon on the Lake, live at Tokyo’s legendary Pit Inn. Although the pandemic limited their opportunities to perform, “the three have an obvious rapport and sound right for each other, as if they had long experience together,” according to John Eyles in Squidco.
During 2020–21, Fujii overcame the isolation imposed by COVID-19 by recording two albums at home: Hazuki, a solo album, and Keshin, her eighth duo recording with Tamura. She also experimented with ways to make music remotely, exchanging music files over the Internet with Ikue Mori for a laptop/piano duo album, Prickly Pear Cactus. And on Piano Music, she created a digital sound collage of short piano music sound files, spontaneously assembled on the computer.
In addition to leading her own ensembles, Fujii has continued to work in co-operative settings. During her Kanreki year of 2018, she began a fruitful collaboration with bassist Joe Fonda that has expanded to four recordings together. In 2019, she recorded Confluence, an album of intimate, highly interactive duets with drummer Ramon Lopez. “Fujii and Lopez are clear-eyed adventurers; this is free jazz that shimmers with inquisitive transparency,” writer Michael Ullman said of the album in The Arts Fuse. Fujii is also a regular member of Tamura’s group Gato Libre (in which she plays accordion).
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.”