Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Things we like: Linda May Han Oh, Ingrid Laubrock, Spirit of Hamlet

Perhaps this is the year, I tell myself, when I'll let my web presence, such as it is, whither away to nothing. But then I'll have a week like this, when several eminently listenable downloads crossed my virtual threshold, and I figure I might as well give them a listen and a line before erasing myself from the blogosphere.

Listening to the Australian bassist-vocalist-composer Linda May Han Oh's new album The Glass Hours (out June 2 on her ecologically responsible Biophilia label), I'm reminded of her very first album, 2008's trio date Entry, which was the first place I heard Ambrose Akinmusire's trumpet. Since then, she's performed as a side musician with the likes of Pat Metheny, Vijay Iyer, and Geri Allen, and released four more albums as leader. The most recent, 2019's Aventurine, was an intrepid composer's showcase which teamed Oh's jazz quartet with a string quartet and vocal ensemble. While The Glass Hours employs a smaller unit (vocalist Sara Serpa, tenorman Mark Turner, pianist Fabian Almazan, and Entry drummer Obed Calvaire), it's no less ambitious in scope. Here, Oh blends her voice with Serpa's on a set of lyrics that address the composer's feelings about mortality (the folkloric-sounding "Jus Ad Bellum" has a title that refers to the laws of warfare). The musicians develop Oh's themes with a deft and airy swing, buoyed by Calvaire's nimble propulsion. Oh recently collected her first Grammy, for her work on Teri Lynn Carrington's New Standards, Vol. 1 -- a set of compositions by women composers whose work Carrington believes is worthy of inclusion in the jazz canon. To these ears, Oh's in that league herself.

Speaking of female composers deserving wider recognition, I first heard the German saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock in 2010, playing challenging experimental compositions and improv in Paradoxical Frog with Kris Davis and Tyshawn Sorey. Besides performing as a side musician with Davis, Mary Halvorson, and drummer Tom Rainey, among others, Laubrock has also led her own ensembles, including the orchestral projects Contemporary Chaos Practices and Dreamt Twice, Twice Dreamt. On her latest album, The Last Quiet Place (out March 31 on Pyroclastic), she fronts a string-heavy sextet (violinist Mazz Swift, cellist Tomeka Reid, guitarist Brandon Seabrook, bassist Michael Formanek, and Rainey) through a series of compositions inspired by journalist Elizabeth Kolbert's books The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History and Under A White Sky: The Nature of the Future. Rather than New Age-y meditation music, Laubrock's compositions here capture the tension and uncertainty of living in a world on the brink of environmental disaster, blending scripted and spontaneous creation seamlessly. Her best foil here is Seabrook, a disruptive improviser whom I saw duet effectively (on banjo) with Jen Shyu during the Nasher Sculpture Center's Harry Bertoia retrospective last year. A new milestone in Laubrock's musical journey, and likely the best avant-rock chamber music you'll hear in 2023.

Last and most noisome, Spirit of Hamlet's Northwest of Hamuretto is a remote collaboration between drummer Scotty Irving of Christian noise-rock juggernaut Clang Quartet, punk-rock eminence Mike Watt (Minutemen, fIREHOSE, Stooges), Japanese psych-rock shaman Kawabata Makoto (Acid Mothers Temple), and songwriter-producer Benjy Johnson. Spirit of Hamlet coalesced after Irving appeared on Watt's internet radio show and the sociable elder suggested a collaboration. Irving sent Watt drum tracks for eight songs, over which Watt dubbed his bass and Kawabata then added guitar. While mixing the tracks, Johnson had the idea of adding additional vocal and instrumental parts, which he did with the other participants' blessing. If guitar-heavy, acid-fried experimentalism is your bag, you'll find plenty to like here, served in bite-size chunks that go down easier than some of AMT's side-long extravaganzas. On "Float," Johnson's spiel has something in it of Ohio poet Dan McGuire's work in Unknown Instructors (with Watt) and elsewhere...a damn fine thing, in my opinion.

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Sarah Ruth and Monte Espina's "Cuatro Estaciones"

The Covid-19 pandemic changed us all, in one way or another: through the dance of denial and death, enforced isolation and introspection, longing for community, or a level of attention to our immediate environment that we'd previously never paid while forging ahead, lost in our thoughts, oblivious to what was around us. All art that has appeared in its wake is somehow marked by the experience, although the response may be indirect or tacit.

These days I'm not writing regularly, but this release is special, not just because it exemplifies pandemic-referential art, but because its creators are, I think, the inheritors of my friend, the musician/visual artist/poet/educator/broadcaster Dennis Gonzalez's project of nurturing a homegrown experimental underground in North Texas, using a variety of media. Cuatro Estaciones is a collaboration between Sarah Ruth Alexander and Monte Espina, the duo of Miguel Espinel and Ernesto Montiel

Alexander grew up on a farm in the Texas Panhandle, surrounded by silence and space. Her education included studies with Meredith Monk, and she now teaches voice, piano, and improvisation (a class in Deep Listening is scheduled for April 8 at Oil & Cotton in Dallas). She contributed a chapter on "Community Building Through Collaboration" to the academic text Art As Social Practice: Technologies for Change (Routledge). She performs solo and in various ensembles, including the feminist improv trio Bitches Set Traps.

Alexander and Montiel are both radio presenters on KUZU 92.9 FM (he: Sonido Tumbarrancho, second/fourth/fifth Thursdays from 10PM-midnight; she: Tiger D, Tuesdays 8-10PM, they: In Praise of Covers, third Sunday 8-10PM). They've curated performances at Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios in Denton, culminating in December 2022's two-day Molten Plains Fest, which presented world-class performers Rob Mazurek, Susan Alcorn, Luke Stewart, Henna Chou, and Weasel Walter, among others. On his own, Montiel has brought innovative talent including Peter Brotzmann, Heather Leigh, Damon Smith, Ra Kalam Bob Moses, Jaap Blonk, Wendy Eisenberg, and Atomic to Oak Cliff venues The Wild Detectives (a bookstore with a big backyard) and Texas Theatre (where Lee Oswald was arrested).

Montiel's father passed away in Venezuela two days before the pandemic quarantine began in Denton, and Monte Espina recorded their album Pa the following day, awash in an ocean of loss and uncertainty. That autumn, they came together with Alexander to improvise and record in the woods at Joe Snow's Aquatic Plants in Argyle, near Denton, amid ponds, trails, and creeks, performing for a small, invited audience, with Alexander's partner Stephen Lucas providing audio and video documentation. Each succeeding season, they recorded in a different location within the property, their quiet electroacoustic improvisation blending with sounds of nature (and human activity -- the occasional overflying airplane). The recordings were edited and mastered by Andrew Weathers for his Full Spectrum label.

In meditation, we sometimes listen for the moment when a sound enters our consciousness, or the one when it fades away. At other times, we listen to the space around sounds. Cuatro Estaciones is ideally suited to such focused listening. The musicians attend closely and respond to each other and the sounds in their environment. Espinel's percussion array, Alexander's small instruments and voice, and Montiel's electronics blend with the rustling of leaves, the crackling of a fire (in "Winter"), bird songs, and even the sounds of Alexander's dog Joan as she explores the objects.

In her book This Is What It Sounds Like: What the Music You Love Says About You, Susan Rogers -- once Prince's recording engineer, now a neuroscientist -- notes that with today's technology, every person carries their own individually curated soundtrack, which they consume passively. Cuatro Estaciones makes the argument that musical sounds -- indeed, all the sounds of our world -- reward more active engagement, if we will only be present and attentive. A lesson of the pandemic we can perhaps carry forward.

Friday, February 10, 2023

Zack Lober's "NO F1LL3R"

Bassist-composer-DJ-producer Zack Lober's a Montreal native by way of Boston and New York, now based in Utrecht, The Netherlands. His Landline project combined music with visual art, while his Ancestry Project used a jazz quintet, turntables, and visual projections to present a narrative based on oral history interviews with his grandfather -- a musician who escaped antisemitism in Europe and wound up playing with some giants of Canadian jazz. Lober's latest group, NO F1LL3R, whose debut release drops February 24 on digital media and limited edition vinyl from Zennez Records, is a trio with trumpeter Suzan Veneman and drummer Sun-Mi Hong. Both of his bandmates here are leaders in their own right, but as a unit, they are empathetic enough to make a spur-of-the-moment free improv like the title track sound as cohesive as the composed pieces.

NO F1LL3R the album is a collection of short takes that flow together seamlessly, starting with "Mid Music," a carryover from The Ancestry Project that unfolds with loose-limbed swing and a melody that recalls Wayne Shorter's "Dolores." "Force Majeure" is a reflective, somber piece that highlights the rhythm section's muscularity, which recalls Ornette's classic quartet in the deep song of Lober's bass and Hong's crisp ride and snare. "a Hymn" pays tribute to both Lober's grandfather Hyman Herman and the estimable pianist Paul (ne Hyman) Bley, with whom he played. "Blues" is written in the style of Bley's one time employer, clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre, but its simple melody again recalls Ornette (who played with Bley in Los Angeles; synchronicities abound). The interplay between Lober and Hong on this track is particularly keen.

The album's weightiest pieces are "Chop Wood" (from the Zen koan that reminds us to "be here now") -- which features the leader's most effective solo work here, and highlights the band's ability to shift effortlessly between deep rumination and propulsive swing -- and "Luck (Alice)," a dedication to Lober's wife in a style inspired by composer Carla Bley. In between, Hong takes a pithy solo on "Sun Drums," and the album concludes with Veneman's "Loved Ones," a brief, bittersweet solo remembrance of those now gone. A succinct introduction to a unit I'd like to see stretch out on these pieces. Producer Ben van Gelder (speaking of illustrious jazz names) captured their interaction with exceptional clarity; there are also remixes of "Force Majeure" available digitally by Utrecht turntablist Kypski and Boston DJ Durkin.

Wednesday, February 08, 2023

Satoko Fujii and Otomo Yoshihide's "Perpetual Motion"

Funny that having ended 2022 with a review of the formidable avant-garde pianist-composer Satoko Fujii's 100th (!) album, I'm starting 2023 (after processing the passing of Jeff Beck and Tom Verlaine) with a review of her latest release.

Beginning in 1996, Fujii's worked in a wide variety of contexts with top-flight improvisers from around the world, but this is her first recorded encounter with guitarist-turntablist-electronic musician Otomo Yoshihide, a similarly prolific creative spirit who's been active since the late '80s. Historically, the Japanese avant-garde has made less distinction between rock, jazz, and classical streams than their Western counterparts. This new release on Stephane Berland's estimable French indie Ayler Records blends all of these elements into a unity that recalls the collaboration between jazzers Yells At Eels and rockers Pinkish Black that the label released in 2020.

Perpetual Motion is a continuous 48-minute improvisation; its division on the CD into four segments reflects the music's ebb and flow, with dynamic shifts that are indicative of the closeness with which these veteran improvisers were listening to each other as they played together. At times, the music occupies a quiet and reflective space. Elsewhere, Otomo churns up welters of abrasive noise and feedback that Satoko answers with thundering dissonance. 

Satoko's ability to match the amplified guitar's metallic clangor with pianistic power is as impressive as Otomo's ability to make his instrument sing expressively at the piano's lowest volume. Both musicians employ extended techniques (guitar bowing, small objects placed inside the piano) to expand their sonic palette. Together, they use rhythm and repetition to build to peaks of excitement that resolve to ruminative valleys before setting off again. A deeply satisfying collaboration between two adepts of spontaneous composition.

Thursday, January 19, 2023

Tears for Jeff

I suppose it is age appropriate that every week, more of the people who defined the world in which I've lived are leaving. I've already had a few "days the music died": Ron Asheton, Lou Reed, Ornette, Cecil Taylor. (And that's just the ones who made it to maturity, but when Hendrix and Zappa checked out, I was too young to take it personally.) 

Nobody else has taken the expressive possibilities of the electric guitar as far as Jeff Beck did. He operated at the razor's edge of control and chaos, his mastery of nuance matched only by his fierce abandon. He was Sonny Rollins to Hendrix's Coltrane: one changed the world, the other lived long enough to fulfill his potential. And like Rollins, his stock in trade was interpretation, not material. (I thought of Sonny the other day while listening to a bootleg of the 1968 Jeff Beck Group -- I own several -- and hearing Jeff throw a quote from the "Colonel Bogey March" in the middle of a blues solo.) 

Jeff learned from Les Paul, Cliff Gallup, Buddy Guy, Roy Buchanan, and John McLaughlin, but was always resolutely his own guy. Once he abandoned blues-rock, he relied on keyboard players (Max Middleton, Jan Hammer, Tony Hymas, Jason Rebello) and drummers (Simon Phillips, Terry Bozzio) to write him tunes or cast arrangements of his riffs. (I was recently surprised to learn that Hymas played with Sam Rivers, and Bozzio wrote Jeff's signature solo piece "Where Were You.") He had a track record of employing strong female instrumentalists: Jennifer Batten, Tal Wilkenfeld, and Rhonda Smith, not to mention Carmen Vandenberg and Rosie Bones, his collaborators on the Loud Hailer record.

When I was 13, Jeff's solos with the Yardbirds were perfect little miniatures that I could study and try to copy. Truth was a bolt from the blue, and along with Live at Leeds and Funhouse, formed the core of my teenage aesthetic, such as it was. The "orange" album introduced hipper harmony and a more radical approach to melody. Like everyone else with ears in the early '70s, Jeff was obsessed with Stevie Wonder. He played on Talking Book, wrote the drum part to "Superstition," and was rewarded with "Cause We've Ended As Lovers," which blew my mind when it appeared on Blow By Blow and which I tried playing in Jeff's manner, without a pick, in the wake of his passing.

I saw Jeff twice on the Wired tour, backed by the Jan Hammer Group (which included a rhythm section that later worked with Lou Reed). The first time, at the Palace Theater in Albany, I was right up front and deafened for hours afterwards (sound reinforcement in the mid-'70s being pretty primitive, still). The second, from the balcony at the Palladium in NYC, I was amazed. I lost the thread after that, although I enjoyed the Guitar Shop album after seeing him on Arsenio Hall's late night TV show with Bozzio (whom I'd seen seven times with Zappa; later, Jeff had able drum support from another Zappa alum, Vinnie Colaiuta), and Frankie's House, the soundtrack to an Aussie miniseries about journos in Vietnam, done in collaboration with Jed Leiber, songwriter Jerry's son, where Jeff staked out the territory he'd explore for the rest of his career.

Jeff had stopped using a pick in 1980 and reports I heard through the '90s described him as a Zen master whose every note was tweaked. This was validated by the Ronnie Scott's DVD, which captured the Wilkenfeld-Colaiuta-Rebello lineup in an intimate setting, with lots of closeups of fingers on strings to geek out on. Emotion and Commotion was the logical conclusion of what George Martin had started with Blow By Blow, and Jeff's interpretation of Puccini's aria "Nessun dorma" is a fitting epitaph. His influence is everywhere, but we'll not see his like again.

Saturday, December 03, 2022

FTW, 12.3.2022

It's been a real interesting year, this 2022. Aside from the news cycle -- Snowpocalypse/Roe/Uvalde, somewhat mitigated by midterm results everywhere but here (Texas), with the prospect of a couple of years of Repub-majority House obstruction/bogus investigations ahead -- it's been a year of loss and illness, mitigated by a handful of things:

1) The development of some infrastructure for creative music here in North Texas, in venues like The Wild Detectives and Texas Theater in Dallas, Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studio in Denton, and The Grackle Art Gallery in Fort Worth. The efforts of Sarah Ruth Alexander, Ernesto Montiel, Aaron and Stefan Gonzalez, Kavin Allenson, and Justin "Hush Puppy" Robertson are instrumental in this. While I haven't caught all the shows I wanted to this year (besides my own health drama, Covid's still with us, no matter how hard folks try to pretend it's not, and hospitals are overflowing with flu and RSV patients), the ones I've caught, mainly at the Grackle because it's near and early, have been inspiring. (Fave Grackle shows: local prog eminences Bill Pohl, Kurt Rongey, and Mark Cook improvising fully formed compositions faster than I can think, and peripatetic folk-punker Hamell On Trial releasing all the pent-up vitriol and bile I've been saving since November 2016, among other emotions.) This past Friday I got to hear bassist Drew Phelps and guitarist Gregg Prickett's filigree improv stitching on an ECM-ish exploration, a ballad, and a mutated swing number in between sets of haunting vocal-and-guitar wonderment from Kate Fisher and the debut of the Dwellers -- the Texan edition of Gabrielle Douglas's Vermont-based "lady band" with Tamara Cauble and Katie Robertson -- whose incandescent vocal harmonies eventually won out over the idiosyncratic house PA. Gregg's got an improv duo with former Kessler Theater sound wizard Paul Quigg that I'd dig to hear. 

2) The Linda Lindas appeared on my radar via an NPR video, posted on Facebook, of the LA-based quartet playing a song called "Racist, Sexist Boy" at their city's public library. It seemed the topical anthem the Covid moment demanded (in the wake of attacks on Asians, spurred by clown Hitler's "China virus" trope), but they were even better than that. I love their Asian-Latina heritage; their pop sense; their punk energy (channeling foremothers like Go-Gos and Bikini Kill); their songs about their cats, Sandra Oh, and the Japanese-America character from The Babysitters Club; and the fact they've done PSAs for water conservation and voting (although only one of them is old enough to have cast a ballot in the recent midterms). Sure, their folks are music biz insiders, but they write their own tunes, and appear to be having a blast playing big gigs all over (when school's out). I hope people their own age dig 'em as much as I do, and that they can keep rockin' as long as they want to.

3) Canadian pianist-composer Kris Davis has been a favorite at la casa since I heard her Clean Feed sides a decade-plus ago. This year she's Grammy-nominated for her side musician work on Terry Lynn Carrington's New Standards Vol. 1 (imagine a Real Book of works by women composers), and her own label Pyroclastic has released noteworthy albums by Patricia Brennan (a favorite here; an exciting new voice on vibraphone leads a percussion quartet that draws on Mexican and Afro-Cuban folkloric influences, with no shortage of melody), ex-Mr. Bungle bassist Trevor Dunn, and longtime Mary Halvorson drummer Ches Smith (with Bill Frisell using his pedals like it was 1985 again). But the high point of my listening year was the week when in February producer extraordinaire David Breskin curated six nights of duo performances at the Nasher Sculpture Center during the museum's Harry Bertoia exhibition. For each of these evenings, world-class improvisers performed together and interacted with Bertoia's sounding sculptures. While the guitar night with Nels Cline and Ben Monder was more viscerally exciting (my sculptor buddy Mark called it "jazz Viking rage") and the acoustic instruments night with Jen Shyu and Brandon Seabrook more subtle, the final night with Davis and fellow pianist Craig Taborn was the most sublime, characterized by the kind of deep listening and in-the-moment response that comes from having played together since 2016. Then the following night in Fort Worth, Davis and Taborn brought their duo Octopus to the Modern Art Museum, playing new original works as well as interpretations of Ronald Shannon Jackson compositions. All of the shows were recorded by Breskin's longtime associate Ron Saint Germain and the Nasher events were also filmed, so there'll be opportunities for those who weren't there to share the experience.

4) Finnish label TUM Records completed its release of six albums, totaling 23 CDs, in celebration of the eminent trumpeter-composer Wadada Leo Smith's 80th birthday. A product of Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, Smith's maturity has seen a surge of creativity, starting with 2012's Ten Freedom Summers, characterized by big works with themes that celebrate the freedom struggles and musical heritage of the composer's times. String Quartets Nos. 1-12 includes works composed between 1965 and 2011, performed by musicians (primarily RedKoral Quartet) who coalesced around Smith during his decade teaching at the California Institute of the Arts. The Emerald Duets pairs Smith with four highly individuated drummers -- Han Bennink, Jack DeJohnette, Andrew Cyrille, and Pheeroan akLaff -- performing compositions and improvisations including three different takes on Smith's "The Patriot Act: Unconstitutional and a Force that Destroys Democracy." The capstone on an event of the decade.

5) I first noticed NYC-based guitarist-composer Max Kutner putting a distinctive spin on Frank Zappa's repertoire with the Grandmothers of Invention at the Kessler a few years back. He's since toured with the reunited Captain Beefheart's Magic Band. This year he had two noteworthy digital releases. Android Trio's Imaginary Numbers finds Kutner and bandmates Andy Niven and Eric Klerks (both also ex-Magic Band) in fusion power trio mode, a nice contrast with their previous release Other Worlds on Cuneiform, which emphasized their progressive rock side and prominently featured guest musicians like '88 Zappa alum Mike Keneally. Recorded with legendary engineer Martin Bisi, High Flavors features a jazz-inflected quartet playing a program of Kutner originals that span jazz, avant-rock, free improv and noise, with a surprising amount of humor. It's Kutner's most comprehensive statement to date. 

6) I first got wind of Zoh Amba, the 22-year-old tenor sax titan from rural Tennessee, from master drummer Ra Kalam Bob Moses back in February. Since then, she's released four albums. Bhakti, on Arkansas-based indie Mahakala Music, is probably the most authentic representation of what Amba's about; it's every note she played in the studio with drummer Tyshawn Sorey, pianist Micah Thomas, and guitarist Matt Hollenberg. Her spiritual sound, which has garnered comparisons with Albert Ayler, is rich and full, with a wide vibrato -- a soulful cry. (She also plays bass, guitar, and piano.) My favorite is O, Sun, on John Zorn's Tzadik label. I dig its pacing and the accompaniment by Thomas, bassist Thomas Morgan, and drummer Joey Baron. (Zorn guests on alto on one track.) 

7) Since Robert Fripp put King Crimson to sleep at the end of their 2021 tour, he's reinvented himself as an internet personality -- a nice old Winnie the Pooh, in contrast to the knotty persona that KC fans still seem to enjoy doing battle with online (fan culture's toxic, kids) -- and begun sharing his secrets, in the form of a book (The Guitar Circle) which I haven't ponied up for yet, but reckon occupies a space similar to the philosophical portions of Mick Goodrick's The Advancing Guitarist (which I reminded myself I need to revisit after reading of its author's recent passing), and in a series of weekly Robert At Home YouTube videos, wherein he explains and demonstrates some of his guitar technique and repertoire (including mistakes -- which he reminds us can be valuable teachers). 

8) The idea of "practice" has become an organizing principle in my own life, as it relates to exercise and meditation as well as music; not just as a means of preparing for an activity, but as an approach to living (you can train yourself to apply the techniques of meditation to the way you receive sensory input as you go through life). It can be useful to work on developing focus and clarity, and be aware of what you're feeling. This would have been useful insight to have had when I was young -- when I would have been totally unreceptive to it. (Thanks to my meditation teacher Eric Klerks -- yep, same guy who plays in Android Trio, among other aggregations -- for his helpful guidance in this area.)

9) In the past two and a half years, my wife and I have watched more movies than we did in the previous 17. (Thanks, Criterion Channel and, um, Amazon Prime. So evil, so convenient.) Incredibly for me, I haven't kept a film diary. I can't even remember most of the titles, although there was a lot of Korean cinema, and we're currently high on the director Sarah Polley. This, I suppose, is the downside to streaming versus buying DVDs. 

10) Someone recently told me "Age is meaningless." I might have agreed with them before my body started breaking down and my oldest, dearest friends started leaving. I'm reconciled to the fact that my days of playing high energy rockaroll and doing political gruntwork are in the rearview. I've been hanging out with my buddies Rick and Larry (who works there) at Panther City Vinyl on Mondays. It's my version of "the old guys who have breakfast at the cafe every week." I am reminded that every beloved record comes with a story, and what I miss about working in record stores is hearing other people's. I am terminally fatigued with canonical rock shit. (How many more "upgrades" will the majors wring out of the music of our '60s-'70s yoof before all the boomers croak? Will George Martin's grandson get to remix the Beatles catalog?) I rely on a couple of people whose opinions I respect to pull my coat to new stuff that will interest me. At this point, all of our storage solutions are full, so my music collection becomes like a SXSW venue: "One out, one in." I'm going to spend the rest of the year delving into the pianist-composer Satoko Fujii's catalog, on which I was late to the party. Be excellent to each other, won't you?

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Satoko Fujii's "Hyaku: One Hundred Dreams"

I try to listen to music the way my ex-gallery owner wife taught me to look at art: experience first, then explore the backstory. But that kind of goes against my training as a journo, and I couldn't help but notice from the press release that accompanied this impressive and deeply satisfying CD that this is pianist-composer Satoko Fujii's 100th album (released, like most of her work, on her own label, Libra Records).

Fujii's a late bloomer, and proof positive that creative emergence isn't a timed event. Born in Tokyo, 1958, she didn't release her debut disc, a duet with mentor Paul Bley, until 1996, following studies at Berklee and the New England Conservatory. Besides performing solo, she's led groups that include (but are certainly not limited to) a trio with Mark Dresser and Jim Black, an avant-rock quartet with Ruins' drumming force of nature Tatsuya Yoshida, and a duo and other units with her husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, including his band Gato Libre (on accordion) and the transcontinental free jazz quartet KAZE. Of particular note is her work as a composer for large ensembles, encompassing over 20 albums at the helm of orchestras based in New York, Tokyo, Nagoya, Kobe (her home), and Berlin. 

In 2018, Fujii increased her output on the occasion of her Kanreki (60th birthday year, marking the beginning of one's "second childhood") celebration, releasing a new CD every month, with collaborators old and new. The Covid-19 pandemic spurred her to use home recording, internet collaboration, live streaming, and Bandcamp as ways to overcome isolation and continue creating and releasing work. Her output increased geometrically, including solo works as well as collaborations with Tamura, electronic musician Ikue Mori, bassist Joe Fonda, vibraphonist Taiko Saito, drummer Ramon Lopez, and her trio This Is It! (with whom she recorded an album live over the internet). 

To mark the occasion of her 100th album, Fujii composed a new suite, Hyaku: One Hundred Dreams (the title is Japanese for 100), and recorded it live with a stellar lineup including Tamura and Wadada Leo Smith on trumpets, Ingrid Laubrock on tenor sax, Sarah Schoenbeck on bassoon, Mori on electronics, Brandon Lopez on bass, and drummers Chris Corsano and Tom Rainey

While there are moments in the suite (in Parts One and Five) where Fujii allows us to sample the expressive range of her pianism, it's really her mastery of ensemble writing and direction that's on display. She gives all of her collaborators ample solo space, but frames their individual voices in supportive scored passages, and features cathartic episodes of collective improvisation. She divides the group into smaller elements -- a strategy she also employs with her orchestras -- as well as deploying them as a whole. She pens memorable themes, particularly the angular and circuitously winding one that emerges in Part Four and the ascending, valedictory one from Part Five.

The contrast between Smith and Tamura's trumpets -- the former spare and spacious, the latter madcap and humorous -- is striking, while the thunderous interplay of Corsano and Rainey recalls Elvin and Rashied on Trane's Meditations. Lopez skillfully employs the full range of the bass; his arco work is particularly arresting. The sounds Mori generates with her laptop seem to emanate from the surrounding environment or emerge organically from the other instruments' sounds. 

Laubrock is more visceral, less cerebral here than in her own outings, and her encounter with the drummers generates light as well as heat. Schoenbeck is the big surprise among the accompanists. Her melodic imagination and the distinctive timbre of her double-reed instrument -- not often heard in an improvising context -- set her apart; I'm writing myself a reminder to go back and hear her self-titled debut on Pyroclastic from last year. I have a lot of catching up to do with Satoko Fujii as well. It's noteworthy that the most affordable place to buy her CDs appears to be via the store on her website (link above).