This interview was conducted by Blog Curator JC Sanford
JC Sanford: Can you tell me a little bit about your experience in Japan growing up, and what ended up bringing you to the US?
Satoko Fujii: I was a super shy child who couldn’t go out and play with other kids. I even was not comfortable going to Kindergarten and asked my parents if I could quit. They put me in piano class instead because they thought it would be better for me not to stay at home all day long without any communication with other people. When our family moved to another town because of my father’s work, I was in the second semester of first grade. My mother encouraged me and said, “If you cannot introduce yourself in front of your classmates, they might not accept you. Speak your name clearly and loudly and tell them what you feel.” I did so, and I was accepted by my new classmates warmly and kindly. After that, I started being active and talkative. I have to say that since then, I have found out Japanese society back then wanted to have girls quiet and not to express their opinion. Well, I think probably the whole world is not so different because it has always been a male-dominated society.
Playing music was always my favorite thing to do, but I was not so good. In piano lessons, other students improved faster than me. I was always the last student who could play something. But I liked it very much. I wanted to become a musician even though I was not very good. I was rejected all the time, when I had an admission exam to enter the music high school, music college, etc. In high school, I started to listen to jazz because my classical piano teacher, who I respected a lot, loved jazz. And jazz made me question whether or not classical music is my music that I want to play and express myself through. I was 17 or 18 years old, and I noticed I couldn’t improvise at all if I didn’t have written music in front of me. I remembered I enjoyed improvising when I was little. I was so shocked and felt like I was a well-trained dog that can do anything if he/she was told. I stopped playing classical music and started to improvise. It was not easy. I had to stop playing piano and use my voice to improvise because playing piano itself limited my freedom due to my formal education. I didn’t play piano for a few years, but I went to many jazz clubs in Tokyo to listen to jazz then. One day I decided to go back piano. I love the playing of the great jazz pianist Fumio Itabashi, and his music inspired me to play piano again. I asked him for lessons and was able to study with him for a few years. Around then, I started playing piano professionally at a cabaret in Tokyo. Back then there were many cabarets and clubs that had live music. I played every night in a cabaret big band that had a different singer every night. It was a great training, and my bandmates said to me by doing this I would improve easily. But a year later, I was still the worst piano player in Tokyo! This way didn’t work, and I started thinking about going to some school where I could concentrate practicing. I seriously thought I don’t have enough talent and should quit, but I didn’t because I was not sure if I had worked hard enough yet. I gave myself one last chance. If I didn’t change after a year of school, I would quit. I looked for some schools in and out of Japan. There were not colleges that we could study jazz in Japan then, so I decided to go to Boston to study at Berklee in 1985.
JCS: We met at New England Conservatory as students playing in Allan Chase’s “Avant-Garde” Ensemble in 1995, which was a pretty transformative experience for me, although you already had quite a lot of experience in that kind of music before then. Do you recall much about being in that group?
SF: That was a lot of fun playing in Allan’s ensemble with you! I went back to the states to go to NEC after five years back in Japan. At Berklee I practiced and studied to emulate other great jazz musicians. I improved of certain degree and went back to Japan to have a professional career. Then I lost my motivation and started wonder if jazz is a music I really want to play. I mean jazz jazz as a style. I was playing already “free jazz” with [husband and trumpeter] Natsuki at jazz clubs in Tokyo, but I had no confidence what I did. We had heard about NEC and decided to go back to Boston again. I was very happy at NEC where I was encouraged to play music with my own voice. I could focus on not playing like someone else. So that ensemble class was a very good fit for me.
JCS: When I was at NEC, there were a lot of different kinds of students who studied with Paul Bley, but you seemed to connect with him in ways that really helped you develop your own personal thing. Can you talk about your relationship with him?
SF: For me, talking to him was a very special experience. I was already a professional musician when I studied with him but lacked something very important. I think that was confidence that I can accept myself as is. I could see myself clearly when I talked to him. This was not like other piano lessons about technique or music theory or whatever about music. I started looking at myself and accepted myself in ways that made me feel much better about expressing myself. He encouraged me to be myself, and this meant a lot for me. Paul Bley, who had been my favorite piano player, encouraged me!!
JCS: I got the chance to play in your big band a few times when you were still in Boston. That was also a really special experience for me, because I was so surprised how interestingly you mixed very simple tonal structures with very atonal ones. And I remembered you having solo changes in parts, but you weren’t really concerned whether or not the soloist stuck to them very closely (and maybe you may have even advised them not to at times?). And having heard your band several times since then, I still sense this as a hallmark of your music. How do you think about combining tonality and “atonality” and how the improviser fits into all of that?
SF: The more I play and make music, the more I noticed that I can do whatever I want. I feel free to go to “tonal” and/or “atonal”, also playing or having rests at any time. I don’t want to limit myself. Many “free jazz” improvisers don’t like playing some simple chords, melodies, and groove. I want to use anything I can use to make music. I like melodies, harmonies, and grove as well as some abstract textures. I would love to be completely free in making music. There are so many limits in society, but in music we can be totally free.
JCS: Obviously, you’re an incredibly prolific composer. Last year when you turned 60, you released one CD a month for the entire year. And I believe you told me you’ve released about 90 recordings over your lifetime. What drives you to continue to produce so many recordings? Do you have some sort of routine which allows you to generate so much material?
SF: If you look at just one project of mine, I am not so prolific. For example, I only released 11CDs of my NYC orchestra over 22 years. I just have many different projects. When I am at home, in front of the piano, I compose 15-20 minutes every day. I am not at my home so often, so this doesn’t actually mean 365 days a year, but by doing this, I can generate a lot of material and ideas that I can use for each of my projects.
JCS: Wait, are you saying that you’re disappointed that you only made 11 CDs with your NYC big band in 22 years? If so, wow, I’d say most big band leaders live a lifetime and don’t have 11 big band CDs as a leader! Have you made other big band CDs with your groups in Tokyo, Berlin, etc.?
SF: In my mind, the normal release pace might be one CD per year. 11 CDs by my orchestra NYC, 6 CDs by my orchestra Tokyo, 3 CDs by my orchestra Nagoya, 1 CD by my orchestra Kobe, and 2 CDs by my orchestra Berlin have been released. I push myself….
JCS: OK, so can you tell me more about how and why you developed this composing routine?
SF: When I was at Berklee, Chick Corea had a workshop there. He talked about composing training. This was long time ago, so my memory might be wrong, but I remember he said we musicians need to practice “composition skills” just like “piano technique.” Somehow I agreed. Some people think melodies, harmonies, and rhythms are coming down from the sky to talented people. But they don’t come every day. When I compose, I feel like I am looking for something that is already there. There are so many choices to make music, but for me there is only one right note at a particular time, and I look for this right one. Sometimes I spend 15 minutes to find one note. But I really enjoy the process.
JCS: Can you talk about some of your compositional influences? Anyone who melds together improvisation and predetermined composition that set you down that path? Or composers in other styles?
SF: I am sure I get influenced by all of the music I have heard, but I especially like [Charles] Ives’s compositions.
JCS: Did you take the Charles Ives class [taught by John Heiss] when you were at NEC? Is that how you got interested? That class changed how I hear music and was a huge influence in my writing, as well.
SF: Yes, I took that class. It was great. I noticed music sounds different if we listen to it with someone who loves and understands it well. I love his symphonies, but I’m not a big fan of the songs.
JCS: You’ve been an incredible traveler with your music. And you’ve lived in various parts of the country, including Boston, New York, and Berlin, in addition to Japan. And you have versions of your big band in different places using local personnel. How do you manage personnel in that scenario, and how do those different collections of players affect your compositions? I imagine that wide range of musical personalities really shapes your music in different ways depending on where it’s being played?
SF: I lived in different countries and now I somehow know we people are same even there are many differences in the society and culture. My big band projects also allow me to meet many musicians in different countries because I travel with my scores and lead large bands in the places where I travel. I love to hear all their individual voices. If I was satisfied with my music being played in one way only, I wouldn’t need to travel. I know that different kinds of musicians’ own voices make the music richer and more interesting. Last year, I got a chance to bring my large band score “Fukushima” and played it in Kiev, Ukraine, which is close to Chernobyl. Somehow I felt something very deep.
JCS: What’s next for you in 2020 and beyond?
SF: Natsuki and I have a whole day concert from 2 PM to 10 PM at the jazz club Pit Inn in Tokyo with five different projects on January 13. We are busy planning it right now. Right after that I tour with Tatsuya Yoshida in Japan for our new CD, Toh-Kichi “Baikamo.” Then Natsuki and I have a tour with our Quartet Kaze with Ikue Mori in Europe. We have five CDs waiting to be released by Natsuki’s trio Gato Libre, our duo, a trio with Ramon Lopez, a new quintet with Rafal Mazur, and my duo with vibraphone player Taiko Saito.
I started getting some new ideas to make a new solo recording, as well as a new Suite for Orchestra Tokyo. I like being busy.
About the Artist:
Critics and fans alike hail pianist and composer SATOKO FUJII as one of the most original voices in jazz today. She’s “a virtuoso piano improviser, an original composer and a band-leader who gets the best collaborators to deliver,” says John Fordham in The Guardian. In concert and on nearly 100 albums as a leader or co-leader, the globe-trotting Japanese native synthesizes jazz, contemporary classical, avant-rock, and Japanese folk music into an innovative music instantly recognizable as hers alone.
Since she burst onto the scene in 1996, Fujii has led some of the most consistently creative ensembles in modern improvised music. In 2013, she debuted the Satoko Fujii New Trio featuring bassist Todd Nicholson and drummer Takashi Itani, the first piano trio she has led since her trio with Mark Dresser and Jim Black last played together in 2009. The trio expanded into a quartet called Tobira with the addition of her husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, in 2014. The all-acoustic Satoko Fujii ma-do quartet, together from 2007 to 2011, showcased the latest developments in her composition for small ensembles in an intimate acoustic setting. Another acoustic quartet, the Min-Yoh Ensemble with trumpeter Tamura, trombonist Curtis Hasselbring, and accordionist Andrea Parkins is dedicated to developing written and improvised music in the collective spirit of Japanese folkloric music. Fujii also led an electrifying avant-rock quartet featuring drummer Tatsuya Yoshida of The Ruins from 2001 to 2008.
Fujii has established herself as one of the world’s leading composers for large jazz ensembles, prompting Cadence magazine to call her “the Ellington of free jazz.” Since 1996, she has released a steady stream of acclaimed albums for jazz orchestras and in 2006 she simultaneously released four big band albums: one from her New York ensemble, and one each by three different Japanese bands. In 2013 she debuted the Satoko Fujii Orchestra Chicago at the Chicago Jazz Festival. In 2015, she released a CD by her new Satoko Fujii Orchestra Berlin and worked with orchestras in Oakland, California and Bielefeld, Germany.
In addition to playing accordion in Tamura’s Gato Libre, Fujii also performs in a duo with Tamura, as an unaccompanied soloist, with the international quartet Kaze, and in ad hoc groupings with musicians working in different genres. Her special projects have included collaborations with ROVA saxophone quartet, violinist Carla Kihlstedt, pianist Myra Melford, bassist Joe Fonda, and Junk Box, a collaborative trio with Tamura and percussionist John Hollenbeck. She and bassist Joe Fonda have established a fruitful duo as well.
With 2016 marking her 20th year in creative music, Fujii performed solo concerts once a month in cities around the world, her duo with Tamura performed with special guests, and she presented concerts with her small and large ensembles, past and present.
During her 60th birthday year in 2018, a milestone known as Kanreki in Japan, Fujii celebrated by releasing one new CD a month. In keeping the Kanreki tradition of reflecting on the past while looking forward to the future, the 12 albums included releases by groups that Fujii has led or been part of for years, such as Kaze, Orchestra Berlin, Orchestra Tokyo, and her duo with Joe Fonda, as well as new groups and collaborations with Australian keyboardist Alister Spence; Mahobin, a cooperative quartet featuring Lotte Anker, Ikue Mori, and Natsuki Tamura; a quartet featuring percussive dancer Mizuki Wildenhahn; and others. Her newest working trio, This Is It!, made its recorded debut, as well.
“Whether performing with her orchestra, combo, or playing solo piano, Satoko Fujii points the listener towards the future of music itself,” writes Junichi Konuma in Asahi Graph. Fujii’s ultimate goal: “I would love to make music that no one has heard before.”
(All photos by Bryan Murray)