Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Somberly Memorable Final Album from Gato Libre

Trumpeter Natsuki Tamura and pianist Satoko Fujii‘s previous album with their Gato Libre quartet, Shiro, incorporated elements of flamenco, Middle Eastern, Romany and rock music within an improvisational context. The group’s most recent and final album, Forever, often more closely resembles Fujii and Tamura’s Ma-Do ensemble, which uses traditional Japanese melodies as a stepping-off point. This one is sadly notable for being one of the last recordings made by the group’s late bassist Norikatsu Koreyasu, and for whatever reason has a considerably more subdued, moody ambience. As before, Fujii plays accordion rather than piano here, alongside her trumpeter husband plus acoustic guitarist Kazuhiko Tsumura.

Much of this is a theme and variations set to slow, rubatoesque tempos; the quartet moving forward methodically if not necessarily with a specific meter. Tamura kicks off the opening number, Moor with a stately, anthemic theme over sheets of accordion and plucking from the guitar and bass, rising more rhythmically and then receding, a portentous overture. Court, the second track, follows the same trajectory to a brooding bass vamp withi eerily, distantly lingering accordion. Hokkaido is a cinematic mini-suite, pastoral accordion handing off to more energetic trumpet and then a flamenco-tinged guitar solo. Moseda follows a warmly bucolic, almost Beatlesque theme and then shifts unexpectedly into darkness with an absolutely delicious, chromatically bristling bass solo – it’s the closest thing here to the material on the previous album.

Nishiogi is another catchy one, pensive accordion over nimbly precise bass and fingerpicked guitar, with a long, expansive but purposeful bass solo. Japan is portrated as nebulous and dreamy but with an elegaic bittersweetness (Tamura and Fujii would soon leave their native land for Germany, perhaps explaining that mood) over a sober, marchlike rhythm. A more nostalgic tone poem, World, follows that, another moody bass solo giving way to flamencoesque guitar. The title track moves back and forth from waltz time, up and down, maintaining the nostalgic feel. It’s a memorable way for both the group and Koreyasu to bow out.

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September 14, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Bittersweet, Characteristically Tuneful Pair from Pianist Satoko Fujii

With a nod to Dave Brubeck – album title, song titles and general lyricism included – Time Stands Still is the final album by pianist Satoko Fujii’s Ma-Do quartet. Sadly, bassist Norikatsu Koreyasu didn’t live to see it released, having teamed with the ensemble – also including Natsuki Tamura on trumpet and Akira Horikoshi on drums – to record it in a single session in the summer of 2011. Three months later, he was gone. In the liner notes, Fujii eerily relates a visitation by the bassist in one of her dreams shortly thereafter: he thanked her for the good times and then disappeared.

Like Tamura, his bass work and interplay with the quartet often involves extended technique: scrapy bowing, whispery overtones and glissandos. The two make a double wild card of sorts, whether pairing off or playing against Fujii’s alternately terse and blithely romping lines and Horikoshi’s matter-of-factly spacious, frequently suspenseful presence. Tamura’s phantasmagoria contrasts with Fujii’s precise, briefly bossa-inflected pulse on the opening track, Fortitude. Bouncing, insistent motives give way to a conspiratorial whisper and then a wary, flurrying martial groove on North Wind and Sun; the title track is the smash hit, Fujii’s catchy, staggered hookiness punctuated by circling solos by drums and trumpet.

Rolling Around does anything but – it’s a vehicle for drollery from Tamura and Koreyasu. Set the Clock Back works a vividly austere clockwork theme through cantabile trumpet/piano harmonies down to the spare rhythm section; it wouldn’t be out of place in the Sara Serpa catalog. The quartet revert to a staggered, moody, martial vein on Broken Time, livening it with wry blues allusions and a devious false ending. True to its title, Time Stands Still maxes out the suspense, a sepulchral tone poem building to a gorgeously plaintive, minimalist Fujii solo, ending the album on a particularly dark note.

Intricate, focused interplay is even prominent on Fujii’s latest trio album, Spring Storm, with Todd Nicholson on bass and Takashi Itani on drums A cinematic, forcefully percussive, torrentially Debussyesque rainscape opens the album: even the chaotic breaks are tightly rhythmic. Convection is a study in simple, clear riffage with subtle variations, particularly from Nicholson as he slips from incisive to nebulous. The variations go spiraling into triplets, with a memorably rumbling, polyrhythmic crescendo on the next track, Fuki, followed by Whirlwind, a thinly disguised, unexpectedly jaunty swing tune. The epic Maebure builds achingly from a brooding bass-and-piano moonscape to a punchy, funk-tinged central theme and back; the album ends with Tremble, a gorgeously angst-fueled miniature that ends all too soon. Fans of Fujii’s best small-group work, including her brilliant collaborations with Myra Melford and Carla Kihlstedt, will not be disappointed.

July 14, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jazz for Radiohead Fans

What if there was such a thing as warm Radiohead? Or would that defeat the whole point of Radiohead’s music? To what degree is it necessary to rely on coldly slick digital production and mechanical arrangements to communicate a feeling of disconnection and alienation? What if a group managed to recreate the apprehensive, trippy ambience of Radiohead using real instruments instead of computers and electronic effects?

There are two answers to that question. The first you probably know because it goes back a few years – to the Radiodread album by the Easy Star All-Stars. But that band’s roots reggae cover versions are a parody. Those spoofs are as amusing as they are because roots reggae is such a viscerally warm style, 180 degrees from the source material. Then there’s the new Watershed album by eclectic Japanese jazz pianist Satoko Fujii’s Min-Yoh Ensemble. Min-yoh is Japanese folk music; the album is an attempt to explore themes from that tradition. By whatever quirk of fate, or clever design (Fujii can be devious, and is encyclopedically diverse), this album doesn’t sound particularly Asian.

What it sounds most like is Radiohead, beginning with its somber piano introduction, evoking the first seconds of Kid A and moving on from there. That track, aptly titled The Thaw, eventually reaches a distant bustle, with Natsuki Tamura’s trumpet, Andrea Parkins’ accordion and Curtis Hasselbring’s trombone all emoting restlessly, separate and alone. The band pair off in twos in the sonic equivalent of split-screen cinematography on the next track, Whitewater, Parkins hypnotically holding to a Beatlesque hook. Where Radiohead use loops, this group will run a circular theme over and over, sometimes with the trumpet, other times with the piano as the other instruments scurry and diverge. The third track has the trumpet holding it down with a brooding riff very similar to Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here as the other players go their separate ways, somewhat furtively. The fourth runs a loop until it literally explodes – it doesn’t take long – and then the individual pieces rise and squall over an elegantly murky backdrop. Wary atmospherics grow lively and then subside. The final cut alternates swirls of creepy vocalese with trumpet: it would be a fantastic choice as horror film music as the plot closes in on the killing scene. Of course, evoking Radiohead to any extent at all may not have been part of the plan here: sometimes great ideas are invented more or less simultaneously. Whatever the case, Radiohead fans ought to check this out: the similarities are remarkable.

Fujii also has two other more specifically jazz-oriented albums also out on her terrific little Libra label: the exuberant, boisterously funny and even more cinematic Eto, with her Orchestra New York big band; and Kaze, a a somewhat stark, sometimes abrasive, like-minded collaboration with French trumpeter Christian Pruvost and drummer Peter Orins.

October 13, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: First Meeting – Cut the Rope

This album is the sonic equivalent of a Thai curry gone awry, where you accidentally use an entire can of green chiles, then you add too much garlic, then you realize you’re out of everything else but spices. So you throw the curry in and sautee everything, but on too high heat – the outsides caramelize while the insides stay raw. And then you discover you have nothing to chase it with, no rice, just water. You might find the results completely inedible, but you’d be surprised to know how many of your friends wouldn’t be able to get enough of that endless, raw burn. Like your kitchen disaster, trumpeter Natusuki Tamura and pianist Satoko Fujii’s new album with Cut the Rope, their free jazz outfit, is more of an abrasive intoxicant than it is music. It’s best described, and experienced, as a whole: it might be best appreciated while under the influence of something and it might (but might not) have been created under the influence of something too.

Drummer Tatsuhisa Yamamoto doesn’t hang out much: his main job here is supplying a dense wall of white noise via lush layers of cymbals. When he’s not doing that he’s hitting every piece of metal within reach and probably breaking a stick or two. Yet he can be just as delicate, particularly playing bells during a misty, rustically-tinged duet with Fujii’s koto-like prepared piano. Guitarist Kelly Churko (who also plays with Tamura and Fujii in Fujii’s massive Orchestra Tokyo) runs the gamut from eerily tentative blues, to death metal, to chicken-scratch skronk, to running a simple, muted bossa nova beat during a quieter interlude (which eventually gets stomped on mercilessly by the drums). In a stage whisper through his valves, Tamura conjures the ghosts of free jazz trumpeters past, otherwise squalling or bleating, especially during a memorable duel with Churko’s metal riffage. Fujii serves as the voice of reason here, typically introducing what melody there is, whether plaintive and eerie as is so often her custom, or just plain funny (particularly a latin interlude that the rest of the band completely ignores during the practically 25-minute fourth track). But like an overstimulated cat, the noise always lures her away to see what’s up and join the fun. Everyone finally finds his or her feet – pretty much – during a couple of extended, eerily modal loops toward the end, Fujii and Churko’s macabre music box piano and guitar duet taking it down to a delightful surprise ending.

Most people will find this album pure hell to sit through (check out Tamura’s solo work, Orchestra Tokyo or the most recent Tamura/Fujii small combo, Ma-Do for accessible tunes and high spirits). On the other hand, there’s got to be a couple thousand devotees of noise and vigorous free jazz around the world who would find this hard to walk away from. You may have to drag them with you because you may not want to be around it. Can somebody please open a window? It’s smoky in here and everything smells like garlic.

April 2, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Satoko Fujii Ma-Do – Desert Ship

Multistylistic Japanese composer/pianist Satoko Fujii has just released four radically dissimilar albums simultaneously this spring: one by her gypsy jazz quartet Gato Libre, another by her mammoth Orchestra Tokyo; a noisy improv date by her free jazz outfit First Meeting, and this characteristically fascinating, emotionally varied, richly melodic one by her pretty straight-up small combo Ma-Do. This particular unit happens to be three-quarters of Gato Libre, Fujii on her usual piano this time alongside husband and trumpeter Natsuki Tamura and bassist Norikatsu Koreyasu, plus drummer Akira Horikoshi. A normal music site would have lumped all these albums together into a single article: we’re taking the time to assess each on its own merits because it would take pages to do justice to them in one fell swoop.

The opening cut sets the tone right off the bat, variations on a catchy hook with the inevitable crazed improvisational freakout lurking somewhere down the line. In this case it’s circular permutations of a theme very evocative of the Doors’ Break on Through riff on the piano, Tamura flying overhead in a similarly catchy vein. Koreyasu eventually emerges from the pileup unscathed, somberly, by himself. This album’s title track also appears, far more lushly arranged, on Fujii’s Zakopane cd (just reviewed here) with her Orchestra Tokyo. This version is even more stripped down than it would seem, Tamura’s trumpet a lonely figure in the wilderness, bass coming in with a koto line, piano following in a similarly minimalistic vein. The best song on the album is Nile River, a poignantly swaying modal piano/trumpet theme with the bass scraping gashes in the fabric, wild and skronky, leading the way up.

The album’s fourth cut, Ripple Mark has Fujii running a simple chordal riff, adding menace by degrees as the bass prowls around on its own, Tamura making his entrance with the drums’ martial stomp. They segue into the sarcastically titled Sunset in the Desert, essentially just a big swinging drum solo with occasional squealing accents from trumpet and bass (and Fujii sneaking in to see what the boys have been breaking at the end). Pluto is an otherworldly series of piano cascades with pauses for bass and drums and occasional, brief deoxygenated accents by Tamura into yet another crazed breakdown. They take that idea to its logical and considerably amusing extreme on the perfectly titled While You Were Sleeping, Fujii tossing ever more uneasily as Tamura and Horikoshi jump, stomp and blare, refusing to stop the madness until she finally accedes and gets up. Capillaries has everybody in the band exchanging ever more boisterous trails of bubbles; the album ends with the airy, distant, icily wary epic Vapour Trail, Fujii at her most incisive and bracing, the rest of the band giving her a wide berth. What else is there to say? Another triumph for this extraordinary composer. It’s out now on Not Two Records.

March 29, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Satoko Fujii Orchestra Tokyo – Zakopane

Satoko Fujii is one of those people who seems to record everything she plays – in her case, that’s a good thing. Methodically if not particularly calmly, Fujii has become over the past 25 years simply one of the most important composers of our time: she gives new meaning to the term “panstylistic.” Her own Libra Records imprint has most recently released Gato Libre’s delicious new gypsy-jazz concoction; a surprisingly tuneful if crazily noisy one from her free jazz outfit First Meeting; a typically vivid one by her small combo Ma-Do, and this album by her colossal fifteen-piece Orchestra Tokyo. She first made a big-band splash with her Orchestra New York back in the late 90s: this effort finds her similarly out-of-the-box but considerably different, Kelly Churko’s evil, chicken-scratch guitar skronk frequently adding a snarlingly jarring undercurrent very evocative of Arto Lindsay back in his DNA days. Fujii loves paradoxes and studies in contrasts: as usual, there are plenty of them here, some of them very funny. This ensemble is piano-less, Fujii working exclusively as conductor.

The cd opens with variations on a big bluesy rock riff with boisterous solos from Takao Watanabe’s trumpet and Hakuregumo Nagamatsu’s trombone. The characteristically paradoxical Desert Ship runs a lush, pensively cinematic minor key theme, husband and longtime collaborator Natsuki Tamura’s trumpet a barely caged elephant plotting a quick getaway – and then they’re off on the wings of Sachi Hayasaka’s completely unhinged soprano sax. The third track, Zee, sets gritty, trebly noise-guitar beneath lush, swaying orchestration into a woozy yet disturbed Toshihiro Koike trombone solo. The amusing early morning barnyard ambience of Sakura builds to a rubato, overcast early summer atmosphere, individual voices filtering in and out.

Tropical Fish is even funnier, Ryuichi Yoshida’s baritone sax sprawling and content until the food enters the tank, Koike following in the same vein – and then the rest of the fishes join in a tango that goes from stately to Mingus-esque noir to Jerry Goldsmith cartoonish. The title track works contrasts: a spacious bowed bass intro by Toshiki Nagata against a couple of blasts from the orchestra, then some Bill Frisell-on-mushrooms guitar from Churko that doesn’t take long to go completely unhinged and noisy against big, suspenseful orchestration. The most suspenseful cut here, actually is Trout, a rousing detective theme that’s actually a tribute to a good meal – it must have smelled really good in the kitchen! – Kunihiro Izumi adding a deliciously Middle Eastern alto solo worthy of Lefteris Bournias. They end on a boisterously satirical note, the horns taking a sentimental theme completely over the top with weepy vibrato. As with Fujii’s 2006 live album with her New York orchestra, this one’s going to end up on a lot of best-of lists at the end of this year. New York audiences may not get a chance to see this band, so this album may be as close as you ever come. Fujii, however, gets around (she used to be here a lot more than she is now); watch this space for NYC dates.

March 25, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Gato Libre – Shiro

“Our fourth cd release,” says Gato Libre trumpeter/bandleader Natsuki Tamura, “Is largely thanks to Otoya-Kintoki, the live house where we play in Nishi-Ogikubo, Tokyo. As soon as we finish a performance there, regardless of whether customers showed up or not (usually the latter), the couple who run the place always ask us, ‘When can you play here next? Do you have an open date next month?’ To which I say, ‘Are you sure that’s all right with you? Hardly anyone ever shows up at our gigs.'” Bless the folks at Otoya-Kintoki for sustaining this excellent if not exactly popular instrumental quartet. Besides Tamura, the band features Satoko Fujii on accordion, Kazuhiko Tsumura on acoustic guitar and Norikatsu Koreyasu on bass. Another thing that stands in Gato Libre’s path to worldwide recognition is how diverse and genre-smashing they are. Although they’re all accomplished (and actually famous) jazz players, this particular band blends elements of flamenco, Middle Eastern, gypsy and rock music into a fearlessly improvisational free-for-all. It works because it’s all about atmosphere, there’s a tight chemistry between band members, and Tamura’s stunningly terse, catchy themes make such a good basis for jams.

The first track is a perfect illustration: simple variations on a minor chord, plaintive accordion segue into brisk flamenco-flavored modal tune, accordion acidically shadowing the guitar’s nimble runs, incisive Arab-inflected trumpet solo and a big flamencoesque chordal crescendo as a trick ending. The next cut lets the bass state a thoughtful theme which then rises ominously with a series of crescendos and then an otherworldly jam where everybody goes off to a cabaret of the mind. The aptly titled Falling Star is stark and gypsy-tinged, highlit by a terse modal conversation between guitar and bass. Going Back Home is a swinging Balkan dance that Fujii slowly ushers outside into the netherworld where the rest of the band join her – Tamura offers up a sad flamenco solo, and then they’re off to the races again.

Mountain, River, Sky is essentially a country song, bass introducing the theme and then counterintuitively carrying the lead for most of its eight minutes; Memory of Journey [sic] sends a stately levantine dance further south on a tricky, rhythmic West African tangent followed by the most overtly post-bop passages on the album. The album wraps up with the warmly bucolic title track, evocative of the jazz/country hybrids of Jeremy Udden or Bill Frisell. Gato Libre may not be very popular but they’ve managed to put out one of the best albums of the year, one that will resonate equally well with fans of Balkan and gypsy music as well as adventurous rock and jazz people.

March 12, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment