Sunday, August 1, 2021

'Moon on the Lake": The art of the piano trio, taken far outside the norm

Satoko Fujii incorporates varied legacy into new works.

 Long ago, in an interview by the tireless jazz advocate and scholar Dan Morgenstern, the venerated pianist Bill Evans pushed back against a prominent critic's pronouncement that "no musician relies less on intuition than Bill Evans."

Evans objected in thoughtful terms, saying that his reliance on intuition is about the same as any other jazzman, then explaining cogently that "when you play, the intellectual process no longer has anything to do with it." In light of that, it was interesting to become acquainted with a contemporary jazz pianist from Japan, Satoko Fujii, who has said she models her concept of the jazz piano trio on Evans' path-breaking work.

As far out as "Moon on the Lake" (Libra Records) goes, there are signs that by explicitly pushing the intuitive side of trio playing, Fujii indeed channels Evans' example.  But the listener must understand the solid basis on which Evans objected to the judgment that he lacked intuition. The mind that sets out in advance what she wants to put across is firmly linked to this trio's embeddedness in the "now."

Studio recordings of course allow for planning to the nth degree, particularly when made away from public exposure, thanks to the pandemic. The current recording contains five Fujii compositions, which she interprets with resonant help from Takashi Sugawa, bass and cello, and Ittetsu Takemura, drums.

Still, it's easy to trust Fujii's declared emphasis on what happens in the moment of performance. Of the five pieces here, I found only "Aspiration" excessively sprawling, perhaps too reliant on three-way individual expression and an overconfident trust that everything might hang together over an 18-minute span. In this number, for instance, Takemura isn't even heard from until halfway through. Placed in the center of the five tracks, "Aspiration" may well represent Fujii's conviction that this new trio represents the ultimate of her current inspirations. It remains too much on the outside for me.

On the other hand, the introductory "Hansho" is inviting, and the more patiently laid-out "Wait for the Moon to Rise" brings to full flower a trust in natural process that the title implies. The trio works up a certain amount of apparent impatience with the initially calm waiting. The performance amounts to an arresting, full-spectrum interpretation of the mood behind such a wait.

"Keep Running" sets the dial at a feverish impression of headlong hurry, sparked by Takemura's virtuosity, which is centered on the accented thump and rat-a-tat of tom-toms.  The parameters of "free jazz" are inherently wide, and the trio's inheritance of that boundlessness serves it well here.

The title piece ends the set. "Moon on the Lake" carries the disarming program note in the booklet: "I may blush here because both the title and the musical content are quite romantic. I did try to play it as dryly as possible." The romanticism — another oblique link to the Evans example — comes through without cliche. The impressionism that results has the kind of understatement and precise placement of elements of a Zen garden. It reminds the Western listener that nearly all art with avant-garde bearings retrieves some part of what the artist regards as a usable inheritance. Such an amalgamation comes through brightly in this recording.



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