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Sakoto Fujii

JazzReview: What Japanese musicians influenced your style of playing early on in your career?

Satoko Fujii: My idol early on was Fumio Itabashi, a Japanese jazz pianist who was in Ray Anderson's band and Elvin Jones's band. I went to jazz clubs in Tokyo to listen to his playing very often. Finally I asked him for lessons. He is my first jazz teacher. My husband, Natsuki, now plays in his band. There are some Japanese musicians I liked, but Itabashi was very special for me.

JazzReview: What was it about his playing that you enjoyed so much?

Satoko Fujii: I enjoyed both his piano play and his compositions. His piano sound is very rich and warm, and he has very strong power of concentration. That concentration talks a lot even to the people who don't know the way to enjoy music. The people who saw his performance would be moved with his way of play. We can see he does all he can do. It is a great experience to see someone does something with 100% effort. His compositions are very beautiful. It could be sissy if it is played with too much emotions. But with his way, they sound very deep and strong.

JazzReview: Do you ever listen to older recordings to learn a new technique or idea that you might want to incorporate into what you are doing now?

Satoko Fujii: Let me talk about other musicians’. When I listen to music, I enjoy music itself. But at same time, many times I get ideas from out of them. I like to listen to music by musicians in the same period, because it is fun to hear how other musicians think right now. But I sometimes am amazed by older recordings. For example, Duke Ellington's big band sounds so fresh and has so many ideas. His music is very open and I can hear that he cares about music itself. I am sure he used his ears to make music instead of rules and theory.

JazzReview: Do you look for situations that may be musically challenging to you?

Satoko Fujii: Yes, of course. I have two things I would love to challenge musically. One is bringing Japanese traditional musical 'spirit' in my music. I don't mean any musical technique like scales, rhythm...etc. I mean the energy that I can feel in Japanese music. And the other thing I would like to do is making music that no one has listened to before. My grandmother who passed away a long time ago told me the story. She lost her hearing and she began to hear very, very beautiful music that she had never heard before she lost hearing. I asked her to sing it, but she couldn't. I am still so curious what she heard after she lost hearing. I, of course, don't know what it was and what it is like. But I would love to make music like that.

JazzReview: Any musicians who are no longer with us who you would have liked to play with and or record with?

Satoko Fujii: It is difficult because I have never thought a project with someone who already pass away....I also get some ideas only when I listen to their alive performance.

JazzReview: What was the most important thing you learned from your time with Koji Taku?

Satoko Fujii: I have learned two things from him. One is piano technique, and the other is his view of life. He did the things he wanted to do and didn't care what other people say. It is not easy thing because we have to live in the society. Many people gave up the things that they would like to do. Well. . .I learned we can follow our feeling and we don't need to give up whatever we like.

JazzReview: If you had to make a recording with one musician, who would it be? I know this may be somewhat vague, but I am looking for someone you have yet to record with.

Satoko Fujii: This question is also difficult because I have many, many musicians in my mind who I would like to make a recording with. Anyway, you will know this in the future. I will make a recording with them.

JazzReview: If you had to form a dream band, who would it consist of [musicians living or no longer with us] and what pieces would you choose if you were to make a recording?

Satoko Fujii: Sorry, I don't want to say this. I just would like to put this in my mind. But you will know it because I follow my dream.

JazzReview: What brand of instrument do you play and why?

Satoko Fujii: I have a New York Steinway piano and that is my favorite brand. I cannot bring it to my gigs though.

JazzReview: One of the nice things about Miles Davis was his ability and desire to surround himself with young people in his bands so that he would always have a stream of new ideas. I remember him saying that he did not want to be one of those jazz musicians who base their career on always playing standards. Blakey did the same thing. What are your thoughts of having people you play with who can contribute new ideas and concepts, therefore bring more to the composition and the musical experience?

Satoko Fujii: I totally agree with Miles' idea. Music is many times like a conversation. If you can get some interesting people to talk with, you can get more things from your inside. I mean when we talk sometimes, we would be surprised with what we talk. Some people can bring out my other things I don't know from my inside. I hope you understand what I mean. I am always myself, but I need to recognize myself to be myself. And I can do so by talking or playing with other people. I play with other people to see what I am, and I need new voice talk to my inside from out.

JazzReview: Did music come naturally to you when you were growing up?

Satoko Fujii: Yes, music was always my best friend.

JazzReview: What was it that made you decide that you wanted to play the piano?

Satoko Fujii: I haven't decided to play a piano. When I was in a kindergarten, I was too shy and couldn't get along well with other kids. I asked my mother not to go to a kindergarten. She put me in a piano class instead of kindergarten. She thought it would be better to be out a bit instead of staying in our place all day long, everyday. I was four years old.

JazzReview: When you were growing up, what music did you listen to?

Satoko Fujii: My mother loves any dramatic music. So in my early age I have listen to Italian songs, Argentine tango, opera arias. When I was in high school, I have listened to American pops, rock, etc. as ordinary teenager. I also have listened to many classical music because I was studying classical piano.

JazzReview: Were both your parents musical? Did you come from a musical background?

Satoko Fujii: Not at all! My mother is a big music lover, but she doesn't play any instruments. Her dream was having one of her daughters to be a musician. I didn't follow her dream. . .I just follow my feeling though.

JazzReview: If you were stranded on a desert island, what ten recordings would you take with you and why?

Satoko Fujii: I would love to bring a recorder instead of a player and CDs. If I have to bring ten CDs, I will go to CD shop and get new ones that I haven't listened to.

JazzReview: Are there any other instruments that you play besides the piano?

Satoko Fujii: Recently I play synthesizer in Natsuki's band. It is a big fun for me.

JazzReview: What do you consider your most satisfying release to date?

Satoko Fujii: It is impossible to pick one. I don't have kids, but I feel like my recordings are like my kids. They are all important for me. I cannot pick one.

JazzReview: How important was your early classical training? What did you learn during that period in your life?

Satoko Fujii: While I played classical piano, I of course have listened to my playing. So I could train my ears not just fingers. Also I learned I cannot be a classical player.

JazzReview: I have always held the belief that at some point in one's life, we tend to lose the ability to feel like a child. If you look at a child, they are always exploring, trying something new, and creating. I call it the Play Doh years, because with Play Doh, you can create whatever you want. I believe that people who play jazz are so lucky because they are in touch with the creativity aspect of being a child.

Satoko Fujii: We humans are social animal like ant. We try to be something that we are needed in our society. When people get children they behave like adult. Since I have no kids, I don't need to act like adult. I just can be a child. This situation helps me to relax for making some music. I can try something silly any time.

JazzReview: If you have an idea or concept and are able to keep that concept "floating," you have endless possibilities open to you regarding playing around with the idea/concept, working it etc., as opposed to a rigid idea or concept with no room for movement or change.

Satoko Fujii: I think the most important thing is just keep doing the things we like without worried about. If we don't stop something in ourselves, we have endless ideas in ourselves. No one would stop you. Just you are the one who stop you to be open to hear your own ideas.

JazzReview: Do you prefer performing or writing material?

Satoko Fujii: I like both. They have different delight.

JazzReview: When you are writing material, does it take you long to complete a composition? Do ideas come to you quickly or do you have to work at it?

Satoko Fujii: I compose every morning unless I have some special schedule. It is like my habit. Sometimes I don't take long time, but other times I take long time. For me, compositions are like providence. All notes are there already, and I just find the right answer. I know they are there.

JazzReview: What setting do you prefer playing in [solo, duet, group, orchestral etc.]?

Satoko Fujii: Again I like all. I do all because all are different.

JazzReview: How important was Toshiko Akiyoshi to developing your compositional skills?

Satoko Fujii: I respect her as a musician, but my music is too different from her music to get some ideas. I enjoy her compositions though.

JazzReview: Why do you think Japan has such a high regard for jazz music?

Satoko Fujii: Many Japanese jazz lovers like certain style of jazz. They like late 50's and 60's jazz so much. I think that is because after World War II, Japanese people were released to enjoy music, and jazz came into Japan then. Of course we had difficult time when we had war, so after the war, many people were happy and jazz probably sounded like happy and relax music because of the situation.

JazzReview: How did you meet Natsuki?

Satoko Fujii: When I was a house pianist of cabaret big band, he sometimes came to the band to play. He was a former trumpet player and he came to the band for warm-up sometimes.

JazzReview: In 1985, you went to Berklee. What did you learn from that experience?

Satoko Fujii: The biggest thing was being out of Japan and to see it from outside. I had big culture shock and had spent almost two years to get over. Musically, I learned I cannot be a bebop pianist.

JazzReview: What is the piece South Wind about?

Satoko Fujii: The piece was composed with Okinawa pentatonic scale. Okinawa is Japanese south island, but they have totally different culture from Japan. Okinawa pentatonic scale is very different from other Japanese scales. I didn't plan to use this scale when I composed it. It has just came out from me.

JazzReview: Here are some names. I'd like you to mention the first thing that comes to mind for each of these musicians.

JazzReview: Duke Ellington.

Satoko Fujii: ‘Color notes’ that he used for his band arrangement to put more color on it.

JazzReview: Bill Evans [pianist].

Satoko Fujii: His special voicing and intellectual sound.

JazzReview: McCoy Tyner.

Satoko Fujii: Pentatonic, 4th voicing, pedal, rich and fat piano sounds.

JazzReview: Bud Powell.

Satoko Fujii: ‘Cleopatra's Dream.’

JazzReview: Chick Corea.

Satoko Fujii: ‘La Fiesta.’

JazzReview: These days the state of popular music seems to be one sorry state of affairs. I remember back in the 60's how great the music was. Not only fun to listen to, but the songs were well written. Any comments on the current state of popular music?

Satoko Fujii: I think these days our society and people care too much about money. We used to have other scale to value things, but it seems like we now only use money to value things. Many records companies seem like they just care about music they can make money. I think we began to forget there are something important that we cannot buy with money. It is very sad.

JazzReview: Creating is a lot of fun and so natural. Where do you draw your inspiration and ideas from when composing?

Satoko Fujii: Composition is very natural thing for me. I do compose like other things. . .like to eat breakfast. I feel like music is somewhere already, and I just find it. When I pick next note, I believe that note is only note I can use. It is providence.

JazzReview: Something About Water was your debut recording. You must have been in heaven performing with such a creative spirit as Paul Bley.

Satoko Fujii: I was very happy to play with him in the recording session. He is an incredible musician, and he has special ability to pull something out from people. I mean musicians who play with him would sound great anyway. There are a few people who have that ability. They can find something outstanding in any people. And by being with them, we can just relax and find something we like in ourselves. I have studied with him at the New England Conservatory and he made me record some music as a part of his lesson. After I made some recordings, we got an idea to record some piano duo recordings.

JazzReview: What is the first concert you ever attended?

Satoko Fujii: I attended student piano concert when I was five years old. I still have a photo.

JazzReview: What was the best concert you ever saw?

Satoko Fujii: There are too many and I cannot pick only one. I love most performance of Henry Threadgill that I saw.

JazzReview: Do you spend a lot of time practicing the piano? If so, any special techniques you use to practice?

Satoko Fujii: I spend a lot of time playing the piano, but not for practice. My idea is I play it, not practice it, even without any audience. Every morning, I improvise and then compose. And then I play some pieces of my composition.

JazzReview: If you had never pursued a career playing jazz, what would you have done instead?

Satoko Fujii: I have no idea. It has been long time to be a musician and I even don't think what else I can do.

JazzReview: Talk a little about teaching. Do you hold many clinics, teach in schools etc.?

Satoko Fujii: I am not a good teacher. Since I accept any expression, I cannot teach. I like any people's expression and I would like them to be as is. I now almost gave up teaching.

JazzReview: Anything left for you to do musically? Is there maybe a musical setting or journey that you have yet to explore?

Satoko Fujii: There are many, many things I would like to do and I have done the tip of an iceberg. For example, I would like to make a music with sound I collect in town and in nature, not from musical instrument.

JazzReview: What projects, recordings that you have that are in the works for 2003?

Satoko Fujii: I have several tours with my Japanese quartet, recordings with my New York orchestra, my New York trio, duo with Tatsuya Yoshida, with Japanese quartet.

JazzReview: Stanley Clarke in a 1978 Downbeat interview mentioned a comment Ron Hubbard was once quoted as saying. "Society is only great when it has aspiring artists, then good administrative people, and then politicians", and he stressed them in that order. Any comments on the importance of artists in society?

Satoko Fujii: I had been stressed a lot being a musician until a few years ago. I thought my music cannot help any people who need help and society don't need my music. I was in New York when the things happen on Sep.1, 2001 and I had to go to Boston by train on the 12th. I went to Penn Station to take Amtrak, but I even didn't know Amtrak run. Natsuki and I were at Penn station, and we heard some background music in the station. That was not special music...just like elevator music. But I realized the music has power, and I could feel many people there were feeling same way as I was feeling. We hadn't been listening to any music for more than 24 hours, no music from TV, from radio. I felt music may be the thing that can help people. It was a great experience for me. I now feel I cannot make any order in the society. All people might be here to do the things that they like. We just do the things....everything is important and also everything is nothing. I just would like to do the things I like and don't think whether it is important.

JazzReview: Do you remember your fist live gig as a professional?

Satoko Fujii: When I was 21 years old, I played solo piano in nightclub in Tokyo and I remember that is the first one.

JazzReview: Do you remember the first record you ever bought?

Satoko Fujii: British pop record, ‘Alone again.’

JazzReview: What music do you listen to these days?

Satoko Fujii: I got some CDs from a friend of mine who knows a lot about Scandinavian jazz, and have been listening to them. I especially like the band, 'Super Silent.’

JazzReview: How healthy is the Japanese jazz scene these days?

Satoko Fujii: If you go to jazz clubs and other clubs in Japan, you can hear a lot of interesting music. But sad thing is you cannot read almost any of them on Japanese jazz magazine, and big records companies don't release their music. I think if Japanese press and record companies care these interesting musicians instead of making up some with their plan, the scene will be much more active.

JazzReview: The 1960's was an interesting period for jazz-so many cultural and political changes going on. . .a transitional period for sure. Do you ever wish you were part of that scene?

Satoko Fujii: I know 60's was an exciting period for jazz, but I think this decade...I mean ‘now ‘ is also very exciting and interesting period for jazz and creative music. And I am enough happy being in this period.

JazzReview: With the emergence of the Internet, how has this new paradigm affected your relation with your fans?

Satoko Fujii: The Internet is more than great for me. Without it, I probably had to give up many things I am doing now. I do get gigs, set up rehearsals and recordings, communicate with fans who I have never met. I cannot imagine I do all this with telephone and fax. It is such a great thing. I can get some emails from people in South Africa or Columbia, etc. where I have never been, saying how much they enjoy my music. I am so encouraged.

JazzReview: Bell the Cat is such a fun recording. My first impression is that you were very happy with this recording. What is Foot Step about?

Satoko Fujii: Yes, I was very happy. I always have a lot of fun recording my music with musicians I can trust. are a musician, Randy? What do you play? Foot Step came from the note "E". I just wanted to play "E" and around. That is the basic idea. And I wanted to express very quiet movement.

JazzReview: What other musicians were influences on you?

Satoko Fujii: I am most influenced by myself. I record my improvisation almost every morning and when the tape is full, I listen to it. I can get so many ideas and materials from out of it. I think people have many things in themselves that they don't know yet. I, of course, was influenced by other musicians. I would say any musicians I like.

JazzReview: Is there anything outside of music that has influenced your musical development. For example, art, architecture, etc.

Satoko Fujii: I am an auditory type person, not a visual. I can be inspired by any sound, not just musical instrument. I like ‘car sound,’ ‘airplane sound’. . .’the sound of sea.’

JazzReview: Jim Black and Mark Dresser are an interesting and inspired rhythm section. How was it working with them on the Bell the Cat recording?

Satoko Fujii: Bell the Cat is our fifth album and we have been playing together for more than six years now. We know how we play and how we make music together. Jim and Mark are both great musicians. I think they are very different. I like getting different character in my music because I know that makes the things more interesting. This is just like human society. In the world we do have many different culture...Asian, Western, African, etc. And I think that differences make our world rich and interesting.

JazzReview: Japan has a deep and historic tradition. You like to use Japanese folk melodies in some of your work. Why is this? What is it about these melodies that excite you?

Satoko Fujii: I don't plan to use them. They just came up naturally. Japanese traditional music can make me be so excited. I don't know why. There is no logical solution to it.

JazzReview: When you and Natsuki record together, is there much planning involved in the recording or is the recording a loose session based on the moment?

Satoko Fujii: The first our duo recording, How Many? took some method to improvise. We have discussed the titles of the pieces beforehand, and we tried to describe it by our play. The latest duo recording, Clouds, took different way. We hadn't talked anything before we recorded. We just improvised.

JazzReview: What was your parent’s reaction when you decided to pursue a musical career in jazz and improvised music?

Satoko Fujii: When I graduated from high school, I decided to play improvised music, not classical piano. We didn't have any college where we could study jazz and improvisation then. My parents wanted me to go to college so they wanted me to play classical music, not jazz, because of this reason.

JazzReview: Early on in your career, it must have been difficult struggling to find work. At the present time are you happy with the worldwide attention you are now receiving?

Satoko Fujii: Well...I have been always happy. But I am even more than happy now because I can do the things that I want to do and there are some people who help me, encourage me and enjoy my music. I am trying to be busy all the time. I push myself to set up gigs, recording, etc.

JazzReview: George Russell is a giant when it comes to composing. You must have felt honored to study with him.

Satoko Fujii: He is a great musician and his concept is amazing. I got a lot of inspiration for my composing from his concept. There are very few musicians who can teach composition, and he is the one.

JazzReview: Please discuss the time you spent with the Cabaret Big Band you were part of in your early 20's.

Satoko Fujii: That band's repertoires were Basie, Ellington, some Latin pieces and dance music. My first big band experience was by this band. It was very new for me after I had played classical piano by myself. I needed some time to get used to play with many horn players. At that time I didn't use my ears to play music. I had just used theory in some books. I was never good pianist in the band. I didn't know any worse professional pianist in Tokyo.

JazzReview: How has the free jazz movement of the 60's influenced your development?

Satoko Fujii: When I was in high school, I tried to listen to jazz, but I never liked it. The first jazz that moved me was A Love Supreme by Coltrane. I was moved with something I didn't understand. I didn't need to learn how they are good. I just could feel it. With bebop jazz I needed to learn. For me Avant-garde music was always very close friend. They came to my inside without any obstacles.

JazzReview: In a real sense, American jazz is based mainly on the blues, while European and Japanese jazz is more or less influenced by traditional and folkloric history.

Satoko Fujii: I think jazz itself is kind of ethno music. Jazz is a global music first created by Africans that interacted with European music in North America by way of Latin America. When I started using blue notes in my playing, it didn't sound like blues. I had to get a riff book and practice it again and again to get how to use blue notes. I think American people wouldn't have a problem like I had.

I have very interesting experience. When I wrote piece South Wind, I saw many American musicians struggle to use Okinawa scale for improvisation while it was easy for Japanese musicians. I think that is because Japanese are familiar with Okinawa scale, like American are familiar with blue notes. This means we Japanese can put our flavor to jazz to make it more rich.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Sakoto Fujii
  • Subtitle: Minerva
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