4 stars 1/2.
Two of creative music’s most inventive forces come together on Duet. Musical restiveness is at the core of pianist/accordionist and composer Satoko Fujii. With a catalogue three-score deep, she has covered formations from large orchestra to solo where the common denominator is her wide and daring exploration of improvisational spaces. Her adroit aptitude for moving through—and sometimes combining—elements of her native Japanese folk music, classical and discordant free improvisation, have made her one of the more consistently interesting artists in music. When not leading her own groups (or partnering with her husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura) Fujii has recorded with pianist Myra Melford, Tin Hat’s violinist Carla Kihlstedt, and fronted a trio with bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Jim Black.
The renowned bassist Joe Fonda has a dream resume including a long musical relationship with Anthony Braxton, and diverse associations with Wadada Leo Smith, Archie Shepp and a duo with Xu Fengxia who plays the Chinese guzheng -a sixteen-string zither. Fonda has shared the billing with pianist Michael Jefry Stevens for the past fifteen years of the globally focused Fonda-Stevens Group. More recently, Fonda recorded—and continues to perform with—Barry Altschul’s 3dom Factor on Tales of the Unforeseen (TUM Records, 2015), a trio that includes Mostly Other People Do the Killing saxophonist Jon Irabagon. Dating back to the mid-70s, the prolific Fonda has released a dozen recordings as a leader.
Neither Fujii nor Fonda had been familiar with the other’s music at the time that the bassist reached out to Fujii for some New York shows, a collaboration that immediately clicked and led to Duet. The album consists of two extended tracks, recorded live in Portland, Maine in 2015 as part of the Portland Conservatory of Music’s Dimensions in Jazz series. Occupying three-quarters of the album, at more than thirty-seven minutes, is the improvised tribute, “Paul Bley.” Opening with Fonda’s deep, resonant plucking, Fujii lyrically joins in but quickly moves to a more angular approach. As their techniques broaden, the pianist works the inside of the instrument as Fonda plums the depths of the bass, scratching surfaces and ingraining sharp edges. Midway through the piece, the duo has morphed into an avant-garde classicalism, Fujii slowing to longer melodic lines, Fonda, briefly switching to flute. The pair slowly, tentatively rebuild the intensity before closing on a serene note.
Tamura joins the duo for part of “JSN,” the acronym for each player’s given name. The trumpeter’s idiosyncratic fluctuations blending with, then giving way to, Fujii’s searching passage where fragments of melody share space with technical flourishes. As the piece progresses, Fonda’s bass—even at its sharpest—retains a full, round sound. He later returns to the flute as he and Tamura join in some high-pitched dissonance, Fujii adding the percussive effects.
As occasionally happens in live recordings of extended works, “JSN” fades out shortly past the eleven-minute mark. Duet, especially where “Paul Bley” is concerned, is a masterful outing where Fujii and Fonda work with empathy and inspiration. The music is by turns reflective and intense, always focused and often striking in its complex beauty.