Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Satoko Fujii’s Fukushima Suite: A Harrowing Milestone in Jazz History

A misty haze of white noise – reed and brass players breathing through their instruments – opens the Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York’s harrowing new Fukushima Suite. As a black cloud looms closer and closer on the horizon, Nels Cline’s guitar and effects squiggle, writhe and eventually deliver acidic, distantly lingering chords. That’s just a prelude to shock, and horror, and savage contempt that follow in response to the global attempts to cover up the worst manmade disaster in world history. The album hasn’t hit the usual streaming spots yet – stay tuned.

Hauntingly majestic, elegaic themes stand side by side with litanies of cognitive dissonance in Fujii’s magnum opus, which ranks with the greatest of Shostakovich’s symphonies or Charles Mingus’ jazz broadsides. As a historical document, it’s one of the most important of our time, especially considering that there’s been as relatively little music has written in response to Fukushima as there has been serious scientific inquiry into its lasting effects.

The ensemble’s conductor and leader wrote the five-part, contiguous suite not as a narrative of the grim events of March 11, 2011 but as a chronicle of terror and panic in the wake of the catastrophe. Fujii and her husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, were in Tokyo at the time, roughly a hundred miles from the site of the four reactor meltdowns. Their old stomping ground is now so contaminated with nuclear fallout that if Tokyo was in the United States, it would be a ghost town: off limits not only to human habitation, but also to human traffic. Consider: the most toxic items discovered in the Fairewinds Energy Education study of Japan beyond the Fukushima exclusion zone turned out to be car tires.

Fujii and her highly improvisational large ensemble recorded the five-part suite the day after they debuted it in Brooklyn in May of last year. She said at the time that it had taken her five years to process her reactions in the wake of the disaster. It took the band just a single day to record it, live in the studio.

What’s different about the recorded version? It’s a lot longer, and tighter rhythmically. Amid the cumulo-nimbus sonics of the second movement, Cline’s guitar and Andy Laster’s baritone sax sputter off to the side, but it doesn’t take long before the music coalesces into a steady, relentless sway, propelled by Ches Smith’s elegant but emphatically syncopated drums and Stomu Takeishi’s growling bass. The whole ensemble eventually join in a an ominously ineluctable, distantly Asian-tinged, utterly Lynchian theme, ironically one of the catchiest Fujii has ever written after more than eighty albums.

Much as Fujii equates the sound of breath to hope and health, it’s hard not to imagine the millions of Japanese and Americans on the west coast who were exposed to the lethal clouds that burned for at least a month at the disaster site. So the subtlest touches here, like Smith’s whispery waterfalling and temple-bell effects behind Herb Robertson’s cautious, microtonally nuanced trumpet, stand out even more. That’s amplified by the chilling, chattering cabal of horns  that develops later on, Fujii casting an unforgiving spotlight on greed and duplicity.

Plaintive pairings – sax and drums, bass and guitar – are interspersed amid the towering angst. There’s even gallows humor, notably Tamura’s panting, furtively conspiratorial trumpet. And Fujii finds closure, if very uneasily, at the end. The tightness and tension among the ensemble – also comprising saxophonists Oscar Noriega and Ellery Eskelin, Dave Ballou on trumpet, Joey Sellers, Joe Fiedler and Curtis Hasselbring on trombones – is relentless.

Six years after the catastrophe, what do we know about Fukushima? Not a lot. The Japanese government, fully aware that it was Chernobyl that bankrupted and brought down the Soviet Union, privatized the disaster. The Tokyo Electric Power Company stuck a canopy over the remains of reactor number one – the one that exploded – and later, during a monsoon in late 2015, either allowed millions of gallons of highly radioactive cooling water to pour into the Pacific, or deliberately dumped it. Either way, the one kind of damage control that TEPCO continues to manage very successfully is one of information.

Meanwhile, the government passed a state secrets act that could subject Fukushima whistleblowers to the death penalty. From radioactivity readings on the mainland and in the Pacific, we know that contamination is increasing. The problem in Japan is that after the disaster, a lot of toxic topsoil from the Fukushima area was dug up and left uncovered in roadside piles which continue to leach into the water table. More catastrophically, the 3/11 meltdown burned a hole in the containment vessel of reactor number three, which has been leaking into the Pacific for more than six years now. Radioactivity levels are currently about six to eight becquerels per cubic yard at the California shoreline, increasing to about thirty becquerels thirty miles off the coast.

Human skin protects against low levels of radiation, so brief exposure to California beach water won’t kill you – if it doesn’t get under the skin or in your eyes, that is. And Pacific contaminants aren’t distributed evenly. There are plumes of water that are relatively clean and others that are far more lethal, as evidenced by the massive die-offs of Pacific birds and fish since the disaster. But the bosses at TEPCO obviously don’t care about that – or about Americans in San Diego County, whose main water supply since 2016 has come from a seawater desalinization plant on the Pacific coast.

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December 17, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Satoko Fujii Debuts Her Harrowingly Relevant Fukushima Suite in Brooklyn Last Night

Last night in Gowanus, I-Beam was packed to the point where it was impossible to get in the door for the debut performance of Satoko Fujii’s harrowing Fukushima suite. The iconic Japanese-born pianist/conductor explained beforehand that she wrote it not as a historical narrative but as an evocation of her own reactions to the March 11, 2011 nuclear catastrophe – and that it had taken her five years to process. After the show, she added that it was also an indictment of greed. Were all the recurring, chattering saxes and trombones of her Orchestra New York an evocation of conspiratorial Tepco boardroom conversations? Possibly. Fujii and her large ensemble – one of the most distinctive and memorable New York big band jazz units of the past couple decades – are recording this haggardly wrenching, angry, aggressively haunting four-part work today. Considering how much improvisation is Fujii’s stock in trade, even in a big band setting, it will be fascinating to compare the album with last night’s white-knuckle intensity.

The group opened not with a bang but with a whisper. A mist of white noise through reeds and valves becamed labored, suddenly anguished, then back again. up to a long, shrieking, terrified crescendo. As discernable melodies emerged, a handful of themes – a faux fanfare of sorts, a wistful Japanese folk tune and a couple of rather sardonic marches – recurred with variations, in between solo passages and a handful of artful pairings of instruments a la Darcy James Argue. Individual spots from saxes, trumpets and trombones were often tormented, sometimes frantic, juxtaposed with intermittent flashes of warmth and calm – and a couple of macabre Japanese heavy metal interludes fueled by Stomu Takeishi’s looming bass and Nels Cline’s savagely graceful, kinetically looped guitar riffage. In a couple of early moments, Ches Smith’s tersely slinking groove gave way to light electroacoustic percussive touches that seemed as sarcastic as they were comic relief.

The plaintive clarinet melody at the end seemed to offer closure, and a degree of hope. Asked afterward if this was meant to portray relief at seeing that the initial phase of the crisis, with its nightmarish plumes of smoke, was over, Fujii’s eyes widened. “Over?” she asked incredulously. “It’s NOT over!” Like the rest of the Japanese intelligentsia, she’s kept a close watch on what reliable information has leaked out about Fukushima – and she’s since relocated to Berlin. The official line about Fukushima is that the disaster is over and the lethal by-products have been more or less contained. The reality is that the containment vessel in reactor three – the most toxic, plutonium-fueled one – continues to leak cooling water and what’s left of the reactor core into the Pacific. The same may be true of the others, but either way, there’s been no definitive answer forthcoming, something that might be expected when a nuclear disaster is privatized.

Meanwhile, across the ocean, San Diego County in California is now getting its drinking water supply from desalinated Pacific seawater – which, in turns, goes back into the continental US water table. Suddenly Americans and Japanese alike face an identical, deadly nuclear contamination crisis. Can anybody other than the courageous Satoko Fujii say “global extinction event?”

May 18, 2016 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Inspired Improvisation from Drummer Devin Gray’s Dirigo Rataplan

Drummer Devin Gray’s recent Dirigo Rataplan – whose name is a mashup of Latin and French, meaning “I direct clip-clop” – is a funky record, especially for improvisational jazz. Bassist Michael Formanek’s full, woody sound complements Gray’s moody, resonantly toned kit – his snare has less snap than boom, and so does everything else for that matter. Gray is an eclectic player, taking the role of both minimalist and colorist here: this is a rare example of no beat going to waste. Saxophonist Ellery Eskelin and trumpeter Dave Ballou round out the band

The opening track, Quadrophonically grows out of a boomy, minimalist pulse into an elegant exercise in two-on-two teamwork, Ballou’s squawk trading with a genial, low-key Eskelin, shadowed by the bass and drums in tandem, rising to anxious and then a sudden calm. Cancel the Cancel features lively, terse horn harmonies over what’s essentially a hip-hop beat: Ballou and Eskelin swipe at each other, then Gray leads everybody down the rabbit hole, back up and down again in to a muffled surrealism that gives absolutely no hint of the surprise ending.

Down Time has the band working variations on a funk tune that go from woozy to wry: Gray’s spare resonance under Formanek’s chords and the horns’ nonchalant bubble is a clinic in how to do more with less. Likewise, early on in the Charles Ives homage Prospect Park in the Dark, Gray builds out of low-key binary horns to a point where most other drummers would bring in the cymbals – but he doesn’t, amping up the nocturnal vibe. Then Formanek tries to pull everybody up with him, but the effect is just the opposite: Gray’s ghostly washes and a final understatedly majestic whoosh put the icing on this crepuscular tableau.

They follow the tersely funky, tongue-in-cheek Talking with Hands with Otaku, spacious microtonally tinged individual lines converging and overlapping, with cleverly dynamic interplay from the whole band, a little trash talking and shadowing, and vividly shifting colors from Gray all the way through. Thickets, a Gerald Cleaver dedication, keeps its moody modalities in disguise until Formanek brings the shivers in – and gets the thing back on track just at the point where it seems like everybody else is ready to shut it down.

The album ends with Katahdin, named for the tallest mountain in Gray’s home state of Maine. There was once a lousy heavy metal cover band by that name – thankfully, this sounds nothing like them. Instead, it’s a catchy, good-natured shuffle that gives Ballou and then Eskelin plenty of space to get sardonic. The compositions’ heads are strong and the playing inspired and on-task: Gray runs a tight ship, knows the strengths of his players and writes to them. New York audiences can watch for a possible rescheduling of the band’s show that was on the calendar at Cornelia St. Cafe last night but may have been postponed for lack of electricity and/or public transit.

November 4, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bang on a Can Marathon 2010: The Early Hours

This year’s Bang on a Can Marathon aimed to be especially audience-friendly. In the “social media lounge” on the World Financial Center balcony, you could recharge your laptop, play an Evan Ziporyn or Julia Wolfe composition on Rock Band (!?!) and get your hand stamped by the hour. Those with a full twelve hours worth of stamps at the night’s end had earned Marathon Warrior designation, a certificate of merit (suitable for framing!) plus a mention on Bang on a Can’s main site and their twitter page. A little extreme, maybe, but that’s what a marathon’s all about. How does this year’s rank, compared to previous years? From the first four hours’ worth, somewhere around the top. The annual new music showcase runs ’em on and runs ’em off, meaning that if you don’t like the piece or ensemble that’s onstage at the moment, you can always come back in ten minutes and there’ll probably be somebody new up there. This year’s selection of performers and composers was characteristically skewed toward the avant-garde (subcategory: postminimalist) with jazzy edges.

The John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble opened the show auspiciously with the drummer/composer’s Perseverance, the centerpiece of the group’s excellent 2009 album Eternal Interlude. Completed on Election Eve, 2008 and dedicated to Obama, it sends three specific sax voices (played by Ellery Eskelin, Tony Malaby and Jeremy Viner) fluttering and flailing against the big band’s majestic swells and a couple of inspired drum breaks by the composer. Eskelin got the Obama role and hung in there tenaciously for all it was worth.

Innovatively and more than a little deviously, German recorder quartet QNG ran through a New York premiere of Dorothee Hahne’s somewhat understated Dance Macabre and its neat half-time ending, and then Paul Moravec’s Mortal Flesh, shifting from hypnotic horizontality to warped baroque, utilizing at least half a museum’s worth of recorders of various sizes. They brought the big seven-foot model out for the final piece, Moritz Eggert’s LOL funny Flohwalze (that’s German for Chopsticks – the tune, that is), mocking and thrashing its cheesiness to the fullest extent that a recorder quartet can thrash.

The mockery continued with Kyrzyg musicians Kambar Kalendarov and Kutman Sultanbekov playing a simple boing-boing jews harp riff over and over again, completely deadpan until the very end, as if to see if the westerners in the crowd knew they were being had. The crowd’s polite applause seemed to confirm the Kyrzygs’ suspicions. The duo finally played a little country dance on lute and fiddle and that was that.

Florent Ghys effectively took speech patterns and did a one-man band thing, making vaguely baroque-themed loops out of them by playing his upright bass through a series of electronic effects. Eggert then did the same on piano, except that his Hammerklavier III went all-out for laughs and delivered them in droves as he pounded the piano everywhere he could reach, finally kicking up his heel on the low keys and losing his shoe in the process.

The Lucy Moses School’s ensemble Face the Music played Graham Fitkin’s Mesh, which attempts to make a rondo capricioso of sorts out of minimal, circular phrases that eventually move into elevator jazz territory. Following them was a duo playing a Tristan Perich work for tubular bells, electronically processed and amplified to the point that it was like being behind a fleet of garbage trucks with their backup alarms shrieking at full volume: a bathroom break waiting to happen.

Alto saxophonist/composer Steve Coleman, joined by Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet, and David Millares on piano played the captivating suite Formation – Lunar Eclipse, cleverly and often intensely exploring permutations of a hypnotic, circular introductory theme that finally got the chance to cut loose when Millares, whose intensity shadowing Coleman’s sax lines all the way through finally got a chance to break loose and wreak some slightly restrained havoc.

With their marimbas, vibraphones, gongs, water jugs and all sorts of other bangable objects, percussion troupe Slagwerk Den Haag opened their short set with the New York premiere of Seung-Ah Oh’s delightfully playful DaDeRimGill, a dramatic laundry-room scenario that managed to be as purposeful and conversational as it was comedic. Marco Momi’s Ludica (an American premiere) displayed the same kind of conversational tradeoffs and humor.

While one trailerload of instruments was being cleared off the stage for another, the JACK Quartet played Iannis Xenakis’ Tetras on the steps in the back of the atrium, amid the audience, moving from characteristic astringent, percussive phrases to swirling and strikingly melodic ambience. It was the big hit of the day, at least until Evan Ziporyn and his group Gamelan Galak Tika were ready to go. Bang on a Can’s Michael Gordon laughed it up with the composer beforehand since the group follow oldschool gamelan tradition, right down to the matching uniforms and seating arrangements. “I thought it was the Bang on a Can pyjama party,” Ziporyn responded sheepishly. “Xenakis, next to a gamelan, really sums up Bang on a Can,” which pretty much says it all.

And the Ziporyn piece they played, Tire Fire, was as aptly titled as it was transcendent. Ziporyn self-deprecatingly remarked beforehand that the piece really had no real reason to exist. Which maybe it doesn’t – other than to give audiences (and ensemble members) a shot of pure adrenaline exhilaration. It’s a triptych of sorts, each theme introduced by the group’s two electric guitarists. The first movement was the eeriest and the best, the ensemble’s bells ringing out an ocean of overtones against the Telecaster’s ominous shades. The two following movements were more optimistic, the second pulsing along with catchy yet stately electric bass. And with that, after four hours of music, it was time to fly out into the hundred-degree heat. Which combined with the messed-up state of the West Village, the police mystifyingly blocking off access to subways from Christopher to 14th St. despite the presence of a huge crowd who’d come out for the gay parade, made the prospect of a return later in the day a foregone conclusion.

June 28, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, experimental music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments