Sunday, March 29, 2009

Satoko Fujii Quartet - Minerva

Forceful free jazz with ferocious rock sensibilities. With Tatsuya of Ruins on drums.

"The Satoko Fujii Quartet's debut album, Vulcan, was something of a revelation, showing well-regarded free-jazzer Fujii in full-out rock mode, backed by a rhythm section worthy of Magma, or well, at least Ruins. Minerva, their second effort, mines similar territory — free jazz with a freewheeling, bashing rhythm section — but moves into spacier and, dare I say it, subtler ground. Fujii seems to exercise her will over the band to a greater extent on this album, with her piano coming to the fore in every piece. And luckily for the listener, her playing is impeccable.

Take "Warp," for instance: while it starts like Vulcan did, with Yoshida's bizzaro vocal noodlings that give way to some long, dreamy notes courtesy of Tamura's trumpet, the piece then breaks into an odd-time trot. Hayakawa's bass holds down a catchy (and mostly static) rhythm over which Fujii drops insistent cluster bombs, with Tamura joining only occasionally with brief mid-tempo stabs at half-melodies. Fujii's playing here is adventurous, delightful, and intense, making "Warp" the highlight of the album for me.

"Weft" and "Caught in a Web" are spacier, with Yoshida laying off his usual bang-bang style, to the point that in parts of "Weft" he might almost be mistaken for a jazz drummer. In fact, discounting structural considerations this song comes closest to a more "traditional" jazz-rock fusion aesthetic, particularly in Fujii's accessible solo two-thirds of the way through. It is followed by "Caught in a Web," which seems almost an exercise in ambience at times but closes with a real bang: a propulsive blast of fuzz-bass and then a flurry of notes from Tamura. Quite cleansing.

Minerva is the least immediately accessible of this quartet's three albums to date, at least to the listener coming from a rock background. But the rewards that it hides are greater than those of Vulcan, in my opinion, and come close to the even more spectacular Zephyros. In the end, though, if you like any of these, you'll like them all, and they all stand on their own merits." - Brandon Wu

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