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Sanrei by Satoko Fujii and Orchestra Nagoya

In a recent interview in Cadence magazine, pianist and composer Satoko Fujii briefly discusses her four ongoing big bands - New York, Tokyo, Nagoya, and Kobe. Unlike the other three big bands, Orchestra Nagoya is comprised of younger Japanese players whose musical backgrounds and listening habits include a healthy dose of rock music. The band, conducted by Fujii, features electric guitarist Yasuhiro Usui who also produced, mixed, and mastered the CD, and wrote two of its seven pieces. Unlike Orchestra New York and Orchestra Tokyo (I haven't yet heard Orchestra Kobe), Fujii does not play the piano in Orchestra Nagoya. Her husband, trumpeter Natsuke Tamura is, however, a prominent soloist on "Sanrei," which also boasts two of his quirky, imaginative compositions, 'Gokaku' and 'Sankaku.' As one might expect, the music here is brash, boldly experimental, even startling.

Sanrei is unique amongst contemporary big band recordings in that its edgy, manic, streetwise energy is more about punk rock or alternative rock than it is a reflection of pioneering 60s and 70s avant-jazz big bands such as Globe Unity or the London Jazz Composers' Orchestra. The piano-less rhythm section is adept at playing bruising, punkish rock and intricate funky fusion. But this band can also swing hard, albeit not in a traditional fashion. At times, the brass and reed section work has a joyfully sloppy, off-kilter Sun Ra sort of sound to it. After a careful listen or two, it's quite apparent that this lack of precision is completely intentional (as it was in Sun Ra's various bands). Even more iconoclastic is the band's penchant for distorted guitar and bass sounds, collective brass and reed soloing, and spontaneous eruptions of vocal sounds - yodeling, scatting, howling, groaning, screaming, and even some pseudo-operatic singing. The latter crop up quite unexpectedly during the CD's first track, Natsuki Tamura's tribal rocker 'Gokaku,' which also features an excellent solo by electric bassist Atsutomo Ishigaki over Usui's in-your-face rock guitar riffing. Tamura's other contribution, 'Sankura,' works with many similar elements - a relatively simple rock rhythm, blaring brass fanfares with surprising dissonances in the top and bottom ranges - before breaking off into a manic 5/4 rhythm for excellent solos by one of the band's two trombonists and baritone saxophonist Yoshiyuki Hirao. Usui's composition, 'Shogetu,' is similar, with alternating slabs of screaming brass and funky off-kilter rhythms that support more extremely impassioned solo work. A manic collective improvisation over a blazing bebop rhythm forms the hub of 'Eaves,' also written by Usui.

Fujii's episodic, multi-sectioned compositions are full of surprises, as well. The urgently wacky 'Blueprint' is replete with Fujii's trademark devices - odd stops and starts, King Crimson-like odd-metered ostinatos, contrasting cells of calm and chaos, and powerful melodies. One of the orchestra's two alto saxophonists contributes an impressively manic solo towards the end of the piece. 'Kondo Star' is a long feature for its namesake, drummer Hisamine Kondo, who also plays kalimba and an array of hand percussion in addition to working out in an impressive fashion on the drum kit. The CD's engaging and visceral title track starts off with jazzy and extremely precise horn section work over a loping rock rhythm and Usui's metallic guitar shards. A lone trumpet soloist - probably Tamura - blows an angular, questing solo as the rhythm section slowly gains steam. The overall effect is not unlike something off of Miles Davis' great mid-70s recordings. The horns return, and initiate a new section - this time an repetitive, odd-metered figure, over which an alto saxophonist blows a fevered, fractured solo. The rest of the band drops out, while the alto soloist forges ahead quite starkly alone (again - similar to Sonny Fortune's work on Agartha. He continues to spit flame as the rest of the band re-enters with the original loping rock riff.

Sanrei is a bracing, high-intensity musical journey through the imaginations of some of Japan's most exciting and interesting musicians and composers. While it represents a definitive break from the typical 'avant garde big band' sound, it is probably too dark, intense, and rock-based for fans of traditional big band jazz. However, I totally enjoyed "Sanrei" from beginning to end. Fujii and her colleagues prove once again that the creative possibilities in a jazz ensemble of any given size are limitless.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Satoko Fujii and Orchestra Nagoya
  • CD Title: Sanrei
  • Genre: Free Jazz / Avante Garde
  • Year Released: 2008
  • Record Label: Bakamo Records
  • Tracks: Gokaku, Eaves, Blueprint, Kondo Star, Shogetu, Sankaku, Sanrei
  • Musicians: Satoko Fujii (conductor), Shinkgo Takeda (alto sax), Akihiko Yoshimaru (alto sax), Kenichi Matsumoto (tenor sax), Yoshihio Hanawa (tenor sax), Yoshiyuki Hirao (baritone sax), Natsuki Tamura (trumpet), Tsomutu Watanabe (trumpet), Takahiro Tsujita (trumpet), Misaki Ishiwata (trumpet), Tomoyuki Mihara (trombone), Toshinori Terukina (trombone, euphonium), Tatsuki Yoshino (tuba), Yasuhiro Usui (guitar), Atsutomo Ishigaki (bass), Hisamine Kondo (drums)
  • Rating: Four Stars
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