Getting busy with pianist/composer Satoko Fujii

Pianist/composer Satoko Fujii performs at the Berkeley Arts Festival performance space Friday on a double bill with Larry Ochs, and plays a solo recital Saturday at Maybeck Studio in honor of Paul Bley
Pianist/composer Satoko Fujii performs at the Berkeley Arts Festival performance space Friday on a double bill with Larry Ochs, and plays a solo recital Saturday at Maybeck Studio in honor of Paul Bley

When Satoko Fujii describes herself as lazy, take it with a grain of salt. Better yet, make it a shaker-full. Since recording her first CD in 1996, the Japanese pianist/composer has left even her most prolific peers in the dust, releasing a veritable torrent of albums documenting a dizzying array of ensembles around the world. And it’s not like she’s sacrificing quality for quantity, as Fujii is widely considered one of the most consistently vivid writers in jazz.

She returns to Berkeley this weekend for two very different concerts that are part of her year-long celebration marking the 20th anniversary of Libra, the label she runs with her husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura (aka Kappa Maki). On Friday, Fujii plays the Berkeley Arts Festival performance space in a double bill co-sponsored by the Center for New Music San Francisco. She opens with Maki and special guest drummer Gino Robair, followed by Berkeley saxophonist Larry Ochs, bassist Jason Hoopes and drummer Jordan Glenn (with all the musicians coming together for a brief third set). And on Saturday she plays a free improv solo piano recital at Maybeck Studio, offering a tribute to the late pianist/composer Paul Bley, a mentor who joined her on the first Libra album in 1996, Something About Water.

Born in Montreal, Bley was an early and essential figure in jazz’s 1950s avant garde, collaborating Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman before they attained prominence. An iconoclast improviser who inspired countless musicians, he died at the age of 83 in January. Fujii tends to talk about him in the present tense, describing him as “an extraordinary guy, not just musically. His ideas are super interesting. I never knew a person like him. Sometimes it’s not a musician’s or artist’s view, sometimes very practical. I’m a person who thinks like Paul. I like to think about things in a logical way, not just emotional or with feelings. I like to have something that can be explained clearly. Paul’s talking made a lot of sense to me. I love that kind of mind.”

In the two decades since Fujii recorded with Bley, she and Tamura have released some 40 albums on Libra (and many more on other labels), documenting their volatile duo, numerous working small bands, and talent-laden orchestras on three continents. One of my favorite groups is a power trio with drummer Jim Black and bass master Mark Dresser (who joins Ochs in North Berkeley for a May 28  Harry Bernstein house concert with Jones Jones, a trio featuring Russian percussionist Vladimir Tarasov…email harry@fullplatemedia.com for reservations). What’s most impressive is Fujii’s seemingly bottomless well of strikingly personal musical ideas. To hear her tell it, her enviable creative output flows from her fight against repeating herself.


“The reason I write so much stuff is that I know I’m lazy,” says Fujii, 57. “I don’t want to have a gig with all old repertoire! I know I have to push myself. I love to write and I compose every day, but I need to set up something beforehand or else I can’t focus.”

Trained intensively in European classical music as a child, Fujii became fascinated by improvisation toward the end of high school. She followed the well-trod path from Japan to Boston, earning a scholarship to Berklee and graduating in two years. Returning to Japan in the late 1980s she found lots of work while the economy was still booming, but little that satisfied her creatively. After five years, she returned to Boston to study at New England Conservatory, where her teachers included George Russell, Cecil McBee and most importnatly Paul Bley, who gave her the ultimate letter of recommendation by joining her for a series of shimmering piano duets on her Something About Water.

Satoko image 1
Sakoto Fujii performing. Photo: courtesy Sakoto Fujii

While she’s probably best known for her orchestral work, Fujii has made something of a specialty out of the duo format. There’s 2007’s Minamo (Henceforth), an album of cagey free improvisation with violinist Carla Kihlstedt, and 2009’s Under the Water (Libra), a probing, playfully rough and tumble two-piano session with Berkeley’s Myra Melford.

Melford, whose group Snowy Egret was just named 2016’s best small ensemble by the Jazz Journalists Association, is hardly a slacker. She maintains several working band while maintaining a full teaching schedule as a professor at Cal, but she confesses to being “amazed at Satoko’s output. She goes everywhere in every sized ensemble, and she’s got so many creative ideas of how to work with and write for all these contexts. Whatever she does, she doesn’t sound like anyone else.”

Not surprisingly, Fujii’s most frequent duo partner is Tamura, a highly regarded composer and bandleader is his own right who possesses a wondrously pliable tone and vast timbral palette. They also play together in the trio Junk Box with percussionist John Hollenbeck, the rock oriented quartet Gato Libre, and the spacious chamber quartet Ma-Do. Now dividing their time between Tokyo and Berlin, a central base of operations for performing around Europe, the couple can pull from any numbers of books and bags.

“Sometimes we play my compositions, sometimes his compositions, and sometimes we decide to just improvise,” Fujii says. “Our music is very different. I’ve heard many musician couples have trouble when they play together, but that hasn’t happened so far. We know we’re different and we respect each other and we don’t say bad things to each other, which is very important. But we’d probably be the last person to say good things.”

Recommended gig: Bill Horvitz plays Berkeley Saturday

Focusing on original music written with a grant from SF Friends of Chamber Music, guitarist Bill Horvitz brings his Skerries Sextet to the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists on Saturday. Drawing on jazz, funk, folk, and rock, the band features Steve Adams on saxophones and flute, Cory Wright on reeds, Hal Forman on trumpet and flugelhorn, bassist Scott Walton and drummer Zach Morris.

Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.

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