Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York – Fukushima – Libra 214-044 57:34 [12/15/17] ****:
(Satoko Fujii – conductor, composer; Oscar Noriega – alto saxophone; Ellery Eskelin, Tony Malaby – tenor saxophone; Andy Laster – baritone saxophone; Dave Ballou, Herb Robertson, Natsuki Tamura – trumpet; Joey Sellers, Joe Fiedler, Curtis Hasselbring – trombone; Nels Cline – guitar; Stomu Takeishi – bass; Ches Smith – drums)
Do people remember Fukushima? The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant suffered major damage from the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami which hit Japan on March 11, 2011. The chain of events caused a nuclear meltdown, radiation leaks, and permanently ruptured several reactors making them impossible to restart. The environmental harm is far from over. Radioactive water has leached into water and soil in the general area, and highly radioactive water leaked into the Pacific Ocean years after the event. One person who has never forgotten is composer Satoko Fujii. In 2016, she gathered together her all-star, 13-member Orchestra New York to record the ensemble’s tenth album, the 57-minute Fukushima, which is her personal viewpoint on the Fukushima episode and aftermath.
Fujii (who conducted this session but did not play an instrument) provides plenty of space for form, texture, melody and improvisation over the course of five untitled segments which create the album-long Fukushima suite. The segments run between 18 minutes to just over one minute and supply an authoritative affirmation which ranges from discord to plaintive. Fujii states in the liner notes, “The nuclear accident at Fukushima affected me tremendously. Many of us felt desperation and disappointment, but also had some of the hope and motivation that can arise from such dire circumstances.” She explains further, “Through this work I seek to convey the depth of this emotional experience and my own internal response to the accident.”
The sections communicate the significance of Fujii’s feelings. Her confident management of the material results in vivid moments, expressive pacing, and music which is shaped in real time as she conducts the band. Part one opens with the simple sound of air passing through instruments, which deliberately echoes human breathing. There is an immediate sense of openness. Fujii says, “In the context of Fukushima, the breathing or air sound is peaceful, calm, and life-affirming for me.” About three minutes into the eight-minute piece, guitarist Nels Cline (who is new to Orchestra New York) enters with otherworldly effects while the breathing noises shift and escalate into passionate disturbances. The first horn which makes a solo statement is Andy Laster’s baritone sax, which offers a reactive intensity. By the end of part one, the entire ensemble is locked into a tense conflict, which resumes during the 16-minute part two, which is suffused with muscle and dynamism. During the second track, Fujii’s charts frequently allow room for instruments to puncture, punctuate and musically paint in striking ways, an approach which takes advantage of the group’s fluently curving nature as well as individualized instrumental tones and how they relate to Fujii’s comprehensive concept. Initially, the trombones, saxes, trumpets, Ches Smith’s drums (he’s also a new orchestra member), electric bass and guitar torque up and swell into a powerful declaration akin to an earthquake’s cataclysmic force, then the arrangement dims and slows and individual instruments stand out. This type of push and pull, ebb and flow, intensification and reduction continues throughout the second cut.
The start of the 14-minute third track mirrors the CD’s beginning, with ticking percussion and breathing noises. Alto saxophonist Oscar Noriega is the featured focus, layering dissonance with emotive instances, while an abstract and ambient audio scrim fills the background. Much of the third piece has a shadowy and anxious approximation, and seems to illuminate how people might have felt after the earthquake struck and not knowing what would happen next. The number’s second half is more frenetic, feverish and agitated with contrasting breathy sounds juxtaposed against restless and twitchy instruments. One of the three trombones (Joey Sellers, Joe Fiedler or Curtis Hasselbring) is the main highlight.
It’s hard to imagine the proceedings getting more alien and strange. But on 17:53 fourth track, things become abnormal and unexpected. Bassist Stomu Takeishi contributes a nearly extraterrestrial bass solo which is full-on experimental. Then the ensemble joins together into a conventional and straightforward portion bursting with melody and harmony. Tony Malaby’s tenor saxophone and one of the three trumpeters solo with aplomb and invention. Then, the arrangement’s texture becomes frenzied. Cline commences with ringing notes which reverberate off his amplified strings, and delivers some of his signature effects. Fujii markedly imparts interims for everyone to have an improvisational occasion, and the interplay and dialogue among different players is astounding, from horn to horn, guitar to horn, bass to guitar, and so on. Track four concludes with a crescendo of horns, guitar, drums and bass, which upsurges to a tenacious climax. Fukushima closes with a short 1:17 finale with beautiful horns fronted by Noriega’s elegiac alto sax. One takeaway from listening to Fukushima is that the wisest thing for the world is not to forget tragedy or dire circumstances. Fujii makes clear her thoughts on the creation of her album, “I would like to believe it is not too late for us to make a change for the better.”
Fukushima: Parts 1-5