Japanese songs, Thelonious Monk, & Satoko Fujii

February 9, 2014 at 10:11 am

by David Fujino
February 2014

The other day I started thinking about that deep feeling in Japanese folk and pop songs. Not that I’m an expert, because I don’t know a lot of Japanese songs, I don’t search for them, and I really didn’t learn any when growing up. Now, for the record, I do know some of the lyrics and melody of that old chestnut, Sukiyaki.

But I’m a jazz fan, and on that day, I was listening to my CD of Thelonious Monk’s recording, Straight, No Chaser (CK 64886). Thelonious Monk is the African American pianist/composer who, along with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and alto saxophonist, Charlie Parker, is widely credited with founding modern jazz in the post-War years from approximately 1945 into the 1950’s.

Straight No ChaserTrack 5, in particular, interested me, so I went straight to the tune, Japanese Folk Song (Kojo no Tsuki by Rentaro Taki) written, I believe, in the 1930’s. Immediately, Monk makes Japanese Folk Song (Kojo no Tsuki) his own. As Monk redistributes the beat, he changes the overall shape of the tune, and you really get to hear the architect in this composer/piano player. Stalwart members of the Thelonious Monk Quartet are tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, Larry Gales on bass and Ben Riley drums. They are appealingly individualistic musicians and they shine equally as soloists and as members of the quartet. Like the leader, Monk, all members of the quartet masterfully balance tradition and innovation, especially in their solo statements. This is fine and ‘classic’ modern jazz.

Satoko Fujii, the Japanese pianist and composer, is a protean force, a whirlwind piano player and composer and improviser and leader of both small groups and four large jazz orchestras in four cities (among the cities are New York and Nagoya); and she is part of a jazz quartet, Ma-do, which I heard at the Guelph International Jazz Festival on September 5, 2008, live at the River Run Centre.

Fujin RaijinIn her 2007 CD, FUjiN RAijiN, refined musical essences are brought together and gracefully coordinated with a light hand by Fujii. Andrea Parkins’ accordion creates a wash of electronic music in which trombonist Curtis Hasselbring responds beautifully in haunting sound streams and trumpeter Natsuki Tamura’s half-valved swallows and smears show that he knows his history and he knows who Cootie Williams is.

Fujii had long wanted to record a CD of compositions in the style of Japanese min-yoh (Japanese traditional folk songs), and she wanted to retain their power. Two of the six compositions are based on traditional Japanese folk songs, while the remaining four are written by Fujii.

This is avant garde stuff (which I enjoy). The relatively accessible compositions and the ghostly, isolated tones of Parkins’ accordion create a ceremonial atmosphere for the humanized sounds of trumpeter Tamura and trombonist Hasselbring. In this day and age, I found this music soothing to listen to.

The final track, Track six — Kariboshi Kiriuta (traditional) — features Fujii’s idiomatic deep singing and ends, appropriately, with a Fujii fist slam on the low bass end of the piano. The traditional and the new— are united.

ChunThroughout the Chun CD — a series of nine Fujii compositions, with evocative titles like Tokyo Rush Hour, Chun, and Stone Flowers — the sounds are so remarkably varied, broad, and full that you easily forget you’re listening to only a piano and a trumpet. The extended techniques of both instrumentalists — the strums and electric leaps of the piano, plus Tamura’s highly vocalized and fluent trumpet — combine with the compositions to create a multi-rhythmic and multi-textured music that is pleasurably greater than the sum of its parts.



SanreiIn the CD, Sanrei, Satoko Fujii Orchestra Nagoya , Fujii has recorded her seven compositions with Japanese musicians assembled in Japan. The general effect is to make this jazz orchestra sound like one big rock guitar. Tunes like Gokaku, rock out! At the core of the orchestra is Yasuhiro Usui’s flaring electric guitar, the deep throb of Atsutomo Ishikagi’s bass, and Hisamine Kondo’s stabilizing drums. The soloists, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, and Yoshihiro Hanawa on tenor, exhibit great flair and inventiveness in their solos.




Summer SuiteA different edition of Fujii’s jazz orchestras is recorded in the CD, Summer Suite, Satoko Fujii New York; it features a mostly American stellar cast of players, and brings New York-based players such as tenor saxophonists Ellery Eskelin and Tony Malaby, trumpeters like Herb Robertson and Steven Bernstein, and the drums of Aaron Alexander, into a state of creative interplay with trumpeter Tamura, Satoko Fujii on piano, and Stomu Takeishi on burning bass.

The Japanese song is still alive because of the unique sound projections of creative musicians like Satoko Fujii and trumpeter Natsuki Tamura. And there’s, of course, Thelonious Monk and his quartet, bracingly creative and individualistic, playing/singing Kojo no Tsuki . Without succumbing to mimicry, these fine musicians have brought the Japanese song and sense of song, back into prominence for music listeners.

If you’re really into expanding your music listening, I’d suggest you listen to some of these CDs. You might enjoy them.