Satoko Fujii has been a presence in avant-garde jazz since the late 1990s. She has released albums prolifically, as a solo pianist, or in duets and ensembles. Her most remarkable achievements have been as leader and composer for big bands. “Satoko Fujii Orchestra” may sound singular, but Berlin, Tokyo, and Kobe are among the flavours on offer. Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York has borne the fullest brunt of the leader’s creative energy. Entity marks their eleventh album across twenty years. Many of the founding members remain, testament to a long and fruitful collaboration.
Most of Fujii’s orchestral albums include her piano. In recent years, she has stepped back to consolidate the bandleader role. The make-up of the orchestra is otherwise steady: five saxophones, split between alto, tenor, and baritone; multiple trumpets and trombones; a drummer and bassist keeping the rhythm. Big bands of the swing era were generally lighter on sax; but it’s the addition of Nels Cline on guitar that breaks the mould. In composing, Fujii talks of hearing the musicians in her mind’s ear, writing for their specific styles and symbioses. Like dreaming in a learned language, this seems a sure sign of fluency.
Of course, an orchestra is more than the sum of its parts. Great ones are organisms, moving and developing of their own volition. Many of the pieces on this album showcase a principle of organic growth. The title track begins with sustained tones greeting ponderous drums in a reunion warm-up. Dissonance from Cline’s guitar bobs through pools of sound. As the music swells, the ensemble rises in intensity. A solemn jazz refrain brings sudden calm between periods of turbulence. “Gounkaiku” is a more gradual storm. It turns a collective hum into rising and breaking waves. On the back of some masterful trumpet, the listener surfs safely back to shore.
The album title affirms Fujii’s sense of the collaborators as one body. But “entity” is a tricky word, meaning the state of being, as well as the agent which fulfils that state. Is an orchestra an organism, or a lifeforce? A thing that has an essential being, or that which constitutes its being? Across the album, Fujii rethinks the relationships between musician, orchestra, and composer. “Elementary Particles” figures the bandmembers as the dynamic photons and electrons beneath a stable surface. The track starts spaciously, but the musicians turn in tighter and tighter circles. Soon, they are vibrating in a soulful swing, then bouncing off each other in explosive reactions.
At times, Fujii’s orchestra is a bebop ensemble in reverse. Soloists don’t emerge momentarily into the spotlight, but feel their way from individual brilliance towards a superstructure. This principle shines through on tracks like “Flashback”. It starts with coordinated ascension and descension of melody, collapsing into low-key free exploration of skins, strings, and brass. The orchestra maintains its coherence through analepsis, returning to the opening phrase against maniacal guitar distortion. However we draw the lines between the individual and the collective, this release is endowed with an energetic life of its own. (Samuel Rogers)