release date: 6.11.2020 via NOT TWO records
They “…draw deeply from a seeming perpetual wellspring of inspiration…. The bare bones instrumentation allows full appreciation of their virtues: inventive composerly craft; prodigious improvising prowess; a taut balance between melody and mayhem; and individual excursions which confirm the parameters of the charts as stimulating rather than limiting factors.” – John Sharpe, Point of Departure
“It’s rare to sense this level of intuition between musicians…” —Kurt Gottschalk, New York City Jazz Record
“Fujii and Tamura offer unsentimental beauty, space, silence and humour… Proof that improvised music can be emotionally engaging as well as ear tickling…” ― Peter Marsh, BBC Music Magazine
Pentas marks another milestone in Fujii and Tamura’s remarkable 23-year history as one of the most celebrated duos in contemporary improvised music. The new CD is among their most lyrical and polished, without sacrificing the exploratory invention and spontaneity that marks their best playing.
“We didn’t want to repeat what we did on our last album, Kisaragi, where we just used pure, abstract sound,” Fujii says. “We wanted to do something new that we hadn’t done.”
Their first concert after recording Pentas was in New York as part of a concert series established by Eric Stern, a long-time fan of the music. On the night of the concert, they noticed he was walking with a cane and that his wife, Chris, assumed most of the production duties. The next morning at the airport before they departed for Japan, they learned to their shock that Eric had died that night after the performance. They dedicate the album to Eric and Chris and their inspiring passion for music.
On previous albums, Fujii shouldered most, if not all, of the composing responsibilities, but this time out, she and Tamura shared composing duties. The two different approaches to writing for the duo create multiple perspectives on their music. And each one writes to the other’s strength, making this one of their most expansive and beautifully tailored albums together.
They were able to hone their approach to each tune before going into the studio. “Before recording, we rehearsed the music a lot and also played many concerts with these compositions,” Fujii says. “Every time we played, we would get another of idea how to play the compositions. There are no rules about how to play them, so we just tried to make them more interesting and exciting. Many times, the first idea we tried didn’t work and we were not happy with the way it sounded. In the next concert, we played the same piece in different way until we began to understand each piece better.”
All that work results in crystal clear, organically developed performances of each composition, with writing and improvising seamlessly integrated. The staccato herky-jerky rhythms of Fujii’s “Not Together” guide the improvisations on the piece, first a dovetailing duet and then an increasingly flamboyant piano solo. Natsuki’s “Pentas” is similarly unified by improvised variations on the composition’s motifs. “Wind Chill” receives an assured performance that features a flowing duet that is marvelously paced and intimate.
“Itsumo Itsumo,” another Tamura piece, bursts upon the listener in big, bold strokes and then develops through call and response, simultaneous improvisations, and a solo piano section, each of contributes to the further development of the performance. Tamura’s whimsical humor carries the day on “Renovation” in which Fujii’s piano hammers away like a carpenter installing dry wall and Tamura’s trumpet seemingly grows more irritated by the constant banging. On “Rising,” a lush spiraling duo improvisation, with Fujii on prepared piano, builds in tempo and intensity to Fujii’s ecstatic composition. This is a classic Satoko Fujii-Natsuki Tamura duet album in that it doesn’t sound like any previous duet album they’ve made.
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Natsuki Tamura & Satoko Fujii © Mai Kawai
Critics and fans alike hail pianist and composer Satoko Fujii as one of the most original voices in jazz today. She’s “a virtuoso piano improviser, an original composer and a bandleader who gets the best collaborators to deliver,” says John Fordham in The Guardian. In concert and on more than 80 albums as a leader or co-leader, she synthesizes jazz, contemporary classical, avant-rock, and folk musics into an innovative style instantly recognizable as hers alone. A prolific band leader and recording artist, she celebrated her 60th birthday in 2018 by releasing one album a month from bands old and new, from solo to large ensemble. Franz A. Matzner in All About Jazz likened the twelve albums to “an ecosystem of independently thriving organisms linked by the shared soil of Fujii’s artistic heritage and shaped by the forces of her creativity.”
Over the years, Fujii has led some of the most consistently creative ensembles in modern improvised music, including her trio with bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Jim Black and an electrifying avant-rock quartet featuring drummer Tatsuya Yoshida of The Ruins. Her ongoing duet project with husband Natsuki Tamura released their sixth recording, Kisaragi, in 2017. “The duo’s commitment to producing new sounds based on fresh ideas is second only to their musicianship,” says Karl Ackermann in All About Jazz. Aspiration, a CD by an ad hoc quartet featuring Wadada Leo Smith, Tamura, and Ikue Mori, was released in 2017 to wide acclaim. “Four musicians who regularly aspire for greater heights with each venture reach the summit together on Aspiration,” writes S. Victor Aaron in Something Else. As the leader of no less than five orchestras in the U.S., Germany, and Japan (two of which, Berlin and Tokyo, released new CDs in 2018), Fujii has also established herself as one of the world’s leading composers for large jazz ensembles, leading Cadence magazine to call her, “the Ellington of free jazz.”
Trumpeter and composer Natsuki Tamura is internationally recognized for his unique musical vocabulary blending extended techniques with jazz lyricism. This unpredictable virtuoso “has some of the stark, melancholy lyricism of Miles, the bristling rage of late ’60s Freddie Hubbard and a dollop of the extended techniques of Wadada Leo Smith and Lester Bowie,” observes Mark Keresman of JazzReview.com. Throughout his career, Tamura has led bands with radically different approaches. On one hand, there are avant rock jazz fusion bands like his quartet, whose album Hada Hada Peter Marsh of the BBC described this way: “Imagine Don Cherry woke up one morning, found he’d joined an avant goth-rock band and was booked to score an Italian horror movie.” In contrast, Tamura has focused on the intersection of folk music and sound abstraction with Gato Libre since 2003. The band’s poetic, quietly surreal performances have been praised for their “surprisingly soft and lyrical beauty that at times borders on flat-out impressionism,” by Rick Anderson in CD Hotlist. Tamura also collaborates on many of Fujii’s projects, from quartets and trios to big bands. As an unaccompanied soloist, he’s released three CDs, including Dragon Nat (2014). He and Fujii are also members of Kaze, a collaborative quartet with French musicians, trumpeter Christian Pruvost and drummer Peter Orins. “As unconventional as he may be,” notes Marc Chenard in Coda magazine, “Natsuki Tamura is unquestionably one of the most adventurous trumpet players on the scene today.”