Meet the “Worst Pianist in Tokyo”

Intentionally nothing like McCoy Tyner.

Satoko Fujii doesn't believe in birth control. In little more than a decade, she has ushered into the world nearly 60 babies of all shapes and sizes, colors and creeds. She doesn't discriminate. "My CD's are like my children," she wrote in a recent e-mail interview from her home in Tokyo. "They are all very different, they are all special, and I love them equally." Fujii's maternal pride in her creative output has been a long time coming. As a kid she remembers being "very shy" and "the worst piano student. I was the one who took soooooooo long time just to get one thing. Then when I started gigging, I would say I was the worst pianist in Tokyo." Such dissatisfaction led Fujii, at age 26, to attend the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she found that she was not cut out for ivory-tower bebop. After two years at Berklee, she returned to Japan to try to find her voice in a variety of milieus, from composing for theater and television to playing jazz standards in nightclubs. Six years later, however, she says, "I was still not sure [of] myself." She gave U.S. academia another shot, this time at the New England Conservatory of Music, where Paul Bley revolutionized her outlook. "He said, 'If you play like McCoy Tyner, no one will buy your CD. The reason people listen to you is because you sound like no one else.' That made me feel comfortable to be myself." In 1996, toward the end of her term at NEC, Fujii entered the studio with Bley and came out with a stunning set of piano duets called Something About Water. Releasing this album on her own Libra label (which she runs with her husband, virtuoso trumpeter Natsuki Tamura) marked the launch of one of the most prolific recording careers of the new century. Fujii's vast discography is a patchwork of style and substance that inhabits a kind of in-between space. Early on, her compositions clearly fused the fluent technique and harmonic ear-training of the classical tradition, the serene intensity of a traditional Japanese aesthetic, and the bold improvisational spirit of jazz. As her vision matured, Fujii's approach to music-making expanded beyond these fundamental influences. Now, at any given moment in a wide range of contexts—from solos to duos, small combos to big bands—Fujii tends to direct music that ventures far beyond categorization, carving out her own thing with little attention to genre, technical, or theoretical issues. The pianist explains this simply: "I don't need to think about it. When I compose I feel like the music is already there, so I don't feel like I am making something up; I just find it." As a composer-improviser, Fujii embodies the Frank Zappa ethos: "Anything, Anywhere, Anytime, For No Reason At All." For example, on the recently released Summer Suite with her 15-piece, New York–based orchestra (featuring veteran downtown improvisers saxophonist Briggan Krauss and trumpeter Steven Bernstein), the quick-shifting music feels almost whimsical—"big fun," as Fujii likes to say. On another exceptional new CD, Chun, a series of complexly scripted duets with Tamura, the sound also roves wildly—locomotive, meditative, forceful, lyrical—but the overriding character is more sober. On a third new title, Heat Wave, with her Japanese quartet ma-do, the songs explore the tension of the spaces between the notes, and yet there are many instances when great dynamic swells, incorporating all the instruments, take center stage. The multiple moods of Fujii's music reflect her personal tastes. "I like many different things," she says. "I sometimes would like to play very simple melody, like children's song, and other times just hit the clusters with strong touch. I enjoy everything: tonality, no-tonality, ballad, hardcore, etc. I don't want to limit myself. I think music is real free." Embracing such diversity and freedom is part of what makes Fujii a singular artist. "Satoko is simply a musician without any prejudice," says Larry Ochs, one of the founding members of the renowned Rova Saxophone Quartet who recently added the pianist and Tamura to his ensemble Sax & Drumming Core. "She comes to any project with an open mind and big ears. I think that her greatest skill is being able to feel what's going to work best with a given piece, or a given group of players, and then making everyone, including herself, sound better than anyone could have imagined. As far as projecting in performance, she has no fear whatsoever." World-class violinist Carla Kihlstedt, who just recorded a follow-up with Fujii to their must-hear 2007 duo release Minamo, seconds Ochs' enthusiasm and then some. "Satoko is mercurial and strong and tenacious and dramatic and fearless and open and subtle and and and..." she wrote in a breathless e-mail. "Improvising with her is like having a late-night conversation in which you effortlessly move from one idea to another, making connections you never before imagined." With peer respect like this, one might think Fujii is a confident, even brazen, risk-taker in all things. Not so, says her longtime partner Tamura: "Off stage, she is very fearful person. She thinks something bad all the time and is afraid about it. For example, she stopped driving a car because she thinks one pedestrian will come in front of the car at the next corner and is afraid if it happen. She also is a person who cannot say 'no,' even if she wants to, because she is afraid she will hurt someone's feelings." Fujii's extreme sensitivity toward the welfare of others may be somewhat culturally rooted. She once explained in a previous interview how the concept of "joint responsibility" is a common value of the Japanese people. Perhaps this is why, at 50, she still believes that "in the society, we cannot 'take a risk' because that makes some people hurt or feel bad." Thankfully, for adventurous jazz fans, Fujii does not let anxiety or good manners curb her behavior on the bandstand. "Her desire for music and life is stronger than her fear [of harming others]," Tamura says. Music-making sets Fujii free. Whether composing or improvising, performing or recording, she is most able to be herself in the act of (pro)creation. "I can take a risk," she says. "I can play anything and never hurt people. I would like to take advantage of this. It is the driving force for me. I can be no more and no less than myself."

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