Satoko Fujii Orchestra - "Blueprint" (Polystar Co, Ltd 2004, MTCJ-3016)
Satoko Fujii - "Sketches" (Polystar Co, Ltd 2004, MTCJ-3013)
Satoko Fujii Trio - "Illusion Suite" (Libra Records 2004, 203-009)

From Aural Innovations #30 (February 2005)

Blueprint is the fifth album by pianist Satoko Fujii and her16 piece New York orchestra. The orchestra is on fire throughout the bulk of the album, cranking out big band jazz that is anything but standard, as well as exploring decidedly avant-garde realms. The band flip-flops between free-jazz duels and big horn ensemble intensity that is firmly based in jazz but fueled by an avant-rock edge. The entire set is a horn fest of the highest rockin' order. So for rock fans I'll say imagine Present or King Crimson as big band jazz ensemble and you'll get something like Satoko Fujii's orchestra. Wild as hell and brimming with a commanding expression and passionate embrace. Highlights include "Anemometer" and the untitled closing track, both of which start off as sultry large band works, but soon launch into knock-down-drag-out free-jazz jams that beautifully blend high octane energy and compositional gymnastics.

On the surface, Sketches would appear to take us in a completely different direction, being an entire set of solo piano pieces by Fujii. But Fujii's piano is a commanding presence and does an outstanding job of reproducing the fire and excitement of the full orchestra work. Tracks like "Frozen Fire", "Tree Rings" and "Dazzling Sunlight" fan the musical flames with the sheer authority of the piano's presence, while others, like "Watershed" and "Looking Back", are examples of naked expression where I really felt that the artist is bearing her soul. The short "Tin Can Cat" is an interesting piece, with Fujii exploring the inner workings of the piano by attacking the strings and body of the instrument. These same manipulations are combined with the keyboard on parts of "Look Up", which makes for some off-beat contrasts. A beautiful and challenging set of piano music.

Illusion Suite features Satoko Fujii's trio with bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Jim Black. The album opens with the wonderful 34 minute title track. For the first several minutes Fujii and Dresser trades leads, the piano pounding out dissonant chords and the bass scratchy violin like melodies. But around the 5 minute mark the full trio launches into a powerful jazz jam with drums rocking out, bass keeping a steady rhythmic pace and Fujii's piano leading the charge. At times it seems like the trio is performing the most accessibly jazz based music I've heard from Fujii yet, though that's only the surface impression as this band is full of high adventure. Some of the best parts are when the musicians engage in intense yet playfully spirited battles, creating a sense of frantic but light hearted urgency. The musicianship is superb and the lengthy suite flows seamlessly from beginning to end, as exciting as a suspense novel that can't be put down lest we miss the next big page turning thrill. And enjoyably gripping ride from beginning to end. The remaining tracks feature plenty of the same intensity that characterized the title track, much of it quite stunning and dizzying as the music takes multiple abrupt twists and turns. Fasten your seatbelt folks.

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Reviewed by Jerry Kranitz

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