Satoko Fujii’s Orchestra Berlin ‘Ninety-Nine Years’ (Libra) 4/5

When I say free, you say jazz. Free. JAZZ. Free. JAZZ.

Okay, now we all know what to expect, which is, of course, the unexpected.

Pianist and composer Satoko Fujii returns with 48 minutes of free-spirited expression straight out of nobody’s handbook. Now solidified as one of the foremost figures in her field, Fujii has built an enviable portfolio of more than 80 albums. Her latest, ‘Ninety-Nine Years,’ is sure to confuse and excite anyone looking for no holds barred composition.

Ten-piece ensemble Orchestra Berlin are the drones of the Japanese pianist’s wanton revelry. Having first worked together in 2015 to record Ichigo Ichie, she asked German saxophonist Gebhard Ullman to gather a band of merry souls willing to let themselves go. And so he did, and they did.

“I really didn’t know how they would play together or how the music would sound,” Fujii says. “I didn’t expect them to play so hot, with so much energy.”

Fewer birthday presents are as wackily grand to welcome in a person’s 60th year as Fujii’s present to herself. In 2018 she plans to release 12 albums, one every month. She goes by no rules.

So, back to business; you stick a bunch of musicians in a room together, fronted by an individualist maestro, and tell them to dig deep. They oblige, and their special character comes forth as each is given time to show their abilities and covey their ideas.

Opening, and aptly named, track ‘Unexpected Incident’ is the perfect introduction to Fujii’s manifesto. The music is a perfect representation of the Japanese government’s euphemism for the Fukushima nuclear disaster, from which the name derives. Over the course of 10 minutes we gain a real insight to the band’s bold, energized glory. Tenor saxophonists Matthias Schubert and Gebhard Ullman push to boundaries beyond, with Schubert and trombonist aggressively fighting midway through. Ullman brings it home, but not on this world, with a raving unaccompanied solo.

There’s something creeping in the latter part of ‘Ninety-Nine Years.’ Perhaps a fox is skulking in the shadows, until spotted, running for its life in a frenzy of shrieking saxophone. One may find it difficult to believe that the track opens to bassist Jan Roder, paying tribute Fujii’s late mother-in-law.

Natsuki Tamura is the embodiment of sheer horror during ‘On The Way.’ After a nice, relaxing sequence of percussion, demonstrative of the musicians’ command of rhythm and groove, hell breaks loose. Demons possess trumpeter Tamura. He gabbles uncontrollably. One can imagine him twitching in a corner somewhere, grounded by some otherly being, trumpet stuck snake-like to his lips.

It was Tamura who suggested the title of fourth track ‘Oops,’ perhaps given to him during his trance. In actual fact the inspiration came from the horn players finding the track’s rhythms tricky, or so Tamura says. Any hint of difficulty is not present in the final recording. Pure, intended, trumpeted havoc ensues.

The album closes with ‘Follow The Idea.’ Peter Orins and Michael Griener set the precedent with a parade of rolling drums. The track ends up breaking into something evoking a call to arms. Don’t be fooled though, there’s plenty of mad gargling hidden away throughout, a fitting close to Fujii’s vision.

Cadence Magazine have called her ‘the Ellington of free jazz,’ but that’s untrue. She’s Satoko Fujii, and her music’s coming to get you.

Sam Turnell