Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Satoko Fujii and Joe Fonda Defy Logic and Lockdowns to Keep Their Magical Duo Project Alive

Pretty much every musician alive grew up playing along to their favorite records. What if you could not only play along with one, but be on it too?

That happened to bassist Joe Fonda. It helps that he was in the band.

Before the lockdown, Fonda and pianist Satoko Fujii released three frequently mesmerizing live albums, all of them longscale improvisations. While distance and political insanity have kept the duo separated since, they stayed in touch over email, no doubt hoping to pick up where they’d left off months ago. In the meantime, Fujii has maintained her herculean recording schedule with a series of solo albums and online collaborations, most of which reflect the otherworldly, often mystical sensibility she has come to embrace in the last few years.

Fonda heard her solo record Step on Thin Ice at her Bandcamp page and had an epiphany: why not record a bass part and then release that as a duo album? Fujii thought it was a great idea. The new album – which isn’t online yet – has new track names and is resequenced: it’s a fascinating companion piece and incredibly inspiring for bassists who think outside the box.

One of the reasons why it works so well is that Fujii left a lot of space in the original. That’s reflected right from the first track, Kochi, where Fonda resumes the anchoring role he typically filled on the duo’s other recordings, finding crevasses to insert spring-loaded riffs, sometimes shadowing Fujii’s stern, icily gleaming chords and judicious ripples.

In Fallen Leaves Dance, Fonda reinforces Fujii’s quasi Mission Impossible lefthand, providing a supple tether when she spirals off course. He takes a more prominent role with his supple accents in Reflection, in contrast to Fujii’s vast, somberly echoing expanses and muted inside-the-piano work. Then the two reverse roles: little did they know that would happen!.

The tight, scrambling interweave of Anticipating – a coyly accurate description of Fujii’s architectural thinking – comes across as Monk and, say, Henry Grimes methodically driving a George Russell tune up and eventually off the rails. Fonda’s solo contribution is My Song, a catchy, upbeat pop-flavored riff and animated variations

Fonda has sotto-voce, flurrying fun in between Fujii’s torrential, lightning flurries in Sekirei. Is that Fonda on wood flute in Wind Sound, a mysterious extended-technique sound painting? Yup. It’s the last thing you would expect, a verdant transformation of the original.

It’s hard to figure out if or where Fonda appears in Winter Sunshine, a tantalizingly gorgeous, brief variation on Fujii’s lefthand figures in the second track here. His squirrelly textures and keening harmonics add a completely different, playful contrast to Fujiii’s icily starry, hypnotically circling figures in Haru. The closing track, Between Blue Sky and Cold Water has gritty, windswept textures, somber lingering exchanges amid lots of space, and some unexpected levity: it’s Fonda’s recorded debut on cello.

Under ordinary circumstances, adding bass or drums to an album on top of other tracks is pretty crazy, but it’s literally impossible to tell that this wasn’t done together in the studio unless you know the backstory: desperate times, desperate measures. For the moment, Fujii has resumed playing in her native Japan. Fonda’s next New York gig is on a particularly interesting, improvisationally-inclined twinbill on April 19 at 6:30 PM at Downtown Music Gallery, where he opens the night at 6:30 PM in a trio with trumpeter Thomas Heberer and drummer Joe Hertenstein. The 7:30 PM quartet of singers Joan Sue and Isabel Crespo with bassists Nick Dunston and Henry Fraser is also intriguing.

April 14, 2022 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Satoko Fujii Just Keeps Reinventing Herself

From this blog’s perspective, one of the great things about pianist Satoko Fujii coming to town more frequently these days is that it’s an excuse to listen to another one of her records: she puts them out at an astonishing pace matched only by the astonishingly consistent quality of the music. Her next New York gig is at 8 PM this Feb 11 at Roulette with her Kaze quartet; advance tix are $18 and available there on shownights.

Of the new albums, what’s a good one to spin in advance of the show? There are so many: she put out an album a month in 2018. Why not try Triad, her trio record with bassist Joe Fonda and soprano saxophonist Gianni Mimmo, streaming at Bandcamp.

This is Fujii at her most outside-the-box: there doesn’t even seem to be a piano on the record until a couple of minutes into the airy opening number, when it becomes clear that she’s getting the strings inside it to resonate with a few deft punches as Mimmo floats and Fonda goes way up the scale for harmonics you hardly expect from a bass.

The album’s centerpiece is the forty-plus minute improvisation Birthday Girl (the album was recorded on her birthday in 2018). Mimmo gives her a lively shout-out; Fujii’s own entrance is much more austere, echoed by Fonda. With his chords and steady pulse, he holds the center as she clusters tightly, Mimmo in imperturbable good-cop role. Fujii’s icy, Messiaenic insistence, grim low-register riffage, lingering unease and momentary divergences into chaos are typical and classic for her. The hazy sax/bass duet midway through is an unexpected departure.

The remaining three tracks seem like miniatures by comparison. Accidental Partner has a similar carefree/foreboding contrast between sax and piano. No More Bugs is amusingly picturesque and aptly titled. The three close with Joe Melts the Water Boiler, Mimmo finally picking up on Fonda’s sly boogie hints as Fujii plays kitten on the keys.

February 8, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Conference Call Doesn’t Phone This One In

You have to give these guys credit, they fly without a net every time. By the time reed player/composer Gebhard Ullmann’s quartet Conference Call played their concert on April 22, 2007 in Krakow, they were a well-oiled machine. As far outside as some of their improvisations go, the chemistry in the band is visceral: at this point, they could just press “record” and go for it, knowing they’d get something worthwhile out of it. And as reliably adventurous as these players are – Ullmann on saxes and bass clarinet, Michael Jefry Stevens on piano, Joe Fonda on bass and George Schuller on drums – there’s far more structure and melody in the performances on this album, What About…? than might seem evident at first listen. It’s a long album, two cds and almost an hour and a quarter’s worth of music, but virtually all of it will hold your attention if you listen closely. Jazz doesn’t get any more psychedelic than this.

A cynic would say that the Europeans always go for the weirdest stuff, and these guys start out weird – a flutter of the sax, a wrinkle of the piano, and eventually they work in tandem, fluttering as the bass and drums do recon. But ultimately Ullmann is the scout here, as he will be for the rest of the night, searching overhead as the piano pounds gently – the two converse briefly and then bass and drums join the agitation. They segue into the next two tracks – a tastily chromatic, minimalist piano rumble with variations and then a slowly pulsing nocturne, overtone-laden bowed bass and sax whistling and weaving out of focus, adding a vertiginous, off-center unease. As with many of the tracks here, they fade out gracefully when everyone’s said all they have to say.

Ullmann frequently goes completely against the central key here, with bracingly effective results, particularly on the fourth track – the first of a loosely connected three-part suite – that blends both classical and funk piano tinges while the sax flies overhead. And the device adds considerable humor on the practically seventeen-minute second part, Ullmann swinging obliviously as the rest of the band prowl around, tentative and ominous until they finally coalesce and take it up to a clever false ending.

The second cd opens with Fonda taking over the obliviously swinging role after a long, tersely played yet expansive intro. Stevens’ sardonically titled Could This Be a Polka is actually one of the most memorably warped tangos ever written, Ullmann’s bass clarinet indignant, insistent and eventually even belligerent as the piano brings it back out of the chaos when least expected. Litmus, by Schuller builds from conspiratorial call-and-response to a long machine-gun vamp; Ullmann’s Translucent Tones is an impressionistic exercise in shadowplay, glimmer versus low thoughtful washes of sound as the piano slowly establishes a camouflaged lento groove. The jauntily amusing title track is basically a swing tune with the rhythm stripped away (a paradox, but that’s what makes it so much fun), piano, bass and drums hinting at it but never quiet going there as Ullmann blithely sways along, completely on his own for almost the entire eight minutes. As intriguingly and surprisingly melodic as this album is, it has legs well beyond the free jazz/outsider jazz crowd who are its primary audience.

August 18, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment