Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York ‘Entity’ CD (Libra) 4/5

Oscar Noriega, Briggan Krauss –alto sax, Tony Malaby, Ellery Eskelin –tenor sax, Andy Laster – baritone sax, Herb Robertson, Natsuki Tamura, Dave Ballou – trumpet, Curtis Hasselbring, Joe Fiedler – trombone, Nels Cline – guitar, Stomu Takeishi – bass, Ches Smith – drums

Considering the recent burst of interest in Japanese free/spiritual music of the 60s, 70s and 80s manifested in the excellent BBE J Jazz Masterclass series (which has highlighted the work of many forgotten [or unknown in the West] Japanese players), it should be Satoko Fujii’s time. Her music, in all its extraordinary diversity and proliferation, would certainly appeal to fans of J Jazz, and provides a useful link between the rare grooves of the 20th century and the contemporary scene.

Satoko plays in many formations, from solo to big band, but it’s the orchestras that really demonstrate all her talents. Entity consists of a series of pieces focusing on the tenets of Buddhism as understood by Fujii played by the all-star NY Orchestra (she has another, Japan-based, large ensemble: the Satoko Fujii Orchestra Tokyo). Satoko studied in New York, has kept her connections there and is able to bring together a super-talented ensemble including US stars Ellery Eskelin (ts), Ches Smith (drms), Nels Cline (e-gtr) and Herb Robertson (tpt).

Satoko’s style, owing something to Butch Morris’ ‘conduction’ and to John Zorn’s games pieces, attempts to bridge the difficult water between composition and improvisation. She uses cards and signs to create mood and tempo, to introduce new ideas and to change up the rhythm, otherwise leaving it to the players to navigate the tune. Fujii explains, “I can hold up Sign 1, which means play a long tone with any note, or Sign 2, which means play a glissando”. But it is the skill with which she integrates the improvisation into the composition, without resorting simply to free blowing over the top of the changes, that allows Fujii’s music to stand out.

Take the opening number and title track, Entity. The orchestra comes in on a mammoth chord, only for something more introverted and subtle to emerge into the sonic vacuum. Hung on Ches Smith’s percussive framework, Cline’s guitar sonics twist and turn. Other soloists come and go building to a bruising trombone solo climax. It’s hard to tell where the arrangements end and the improvisations start.

But if this sounds like difficult music, I’m doing it a disservice. While Morris and Zorn and European free groups (other large ensembles that have wrestled with the composing/improvising dichotomy include the Dutch ICP Orchestra, the German Globe Unity Orchestra and the UK’s London Jazz Composers Orchestra) are important touchstones in Fujii’s development, Entity sits easily alongside classic New York albums by Gil Evans and George Russell, or Carla Bley – just turned up a notch. The freeform muted solo given to Herb Roberson on Flashback is Miles on steroids and is followed by a beautifully introspective alto exploration by Oscar Noriega.

Gounkaikou is metaphorically and physically at the centre of the album, bringing together the Buddhist inspiration, the live composition and the improvisational talents of the individual musicians. The majestic opening themes are played out in stately time before the orchestra swaggers in. Dave Ballou contributes a fine trumpet solo, moving from bell-like clarity to fiery jabbing, and the piece dissolves into uncertainty, featuring percussion and dissonance.

Satoko Fujii is undoubtedly one of the finest composer/arranger/band leaders working today. It’s a travesty that she hasn’t played in the UK with one of her large ensembles. London Jazz Festival? It’s overdue…

Mike Gavin