Satoko Fujii, Wadada Leo Smith, Natsuki Tamura and Ikue Mori – Aspiration [TrackList follows] – Libra 204 043, 62:40 [9/8/17] ****:

Four brilliant and independently-minded improvisers together at last.

(Wadada Leo Smith – trumpet; Natsuki Tamura – trumpet; Satoko Fujii – piano; Ikue Mori – electronics)

For listeners who prefer jazz outside of traditional or predictable jazz territory, the 62-minute Aspiration is a must-hear. The reason is the quartet which makes up this six-track album. Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith is one of the top avant-garde jazz and free improvisers. He’s involved with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), was a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his 2012 effort, Ten Freedom Summers,  and he received the 2016 Doris Duke Artist Award. Pianist Satoko Fujii is one of Japan’s major jazz improvisers and free jazz proponents, with over 40 releases. Fujii’s husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, has collaborated on many of Fujii’s recorded material (they both also front the acoustic group Gato Libre) and has been favorably compared to Smith for his likeminded inclinations concerning free jazz and creative melodicism. Ikue Mori (on electronics) was initially a drummer in the late 1970s NYC No Wave movement, and drifted toward digital sound manipulation (she’s worked with Sonic Youth members, John Zorn, and trumpeter Dave Douglas).

Although this is the first time this foursome has been together, they all have associations. Smith and Mori did duets on Smith’s 2002 CD Luminous Axis. Tamura and Fujii have played previously with Mori. And of course Fujii and Tamura have a close musical union. The four musicians form an in-depth bond on the five lengthy tracks (four credited to Fujii; one penned by Tamura; and one by Smith). They venture into areas of auditory opacity and spontaneity where unexpected layers of rhythm, texture, open space, density and melody maintain an unsettled quality. Sometimes there is near silence, other times flourishing sonic excitement. Fujii’s 10:34 opener “Intent” commences with atmospheric solo trumpet (maybe Smith, but it might be Tamura), and about three-and-a-half minutes into the tune, the others enter. Mori supplies electronic snippets, indentations, noises and washes; Fujii delivers quick stabs on piano which punctuate or clash with the trumpet. The absence of a beat or groove on “Intent” and the heightened musical flux provide a sense of tenseness. Fujii’s “Floating” starts with a barely audible electronic coating. Then Mori filters in space-age hues reminiscent of early synthesizer demonstration LPs. There is slow intimacy which suffuses the 11-minute “Floating.” Tamura’s trumpet brings an additional unconventionality while Fujii contributes rhythmic chords and notes which augment the feeling of disconcerting apprehension. “Floating” concludes with harmonious trumpets which alter the cut’s connotations of impulsiveness. The 11:34 title track (also by Fujii) is predominantly (but not solely) a setting for Fujii, who presents various characteristics of creativeness, while Mori interleaves electronic soundscapes which are ethereal, suggestive and eerily nuanced. A trumpet which enters later has a ghostly reverberation which echoes Fujii’s otherworldly mannerism. The longest number is Fujii’s 13-minute “Evolution,” which initiates with Tamura’s breathy, avant-garde solo introduction, where he makes sounds most trumpet players would never think of doing, which at times mimic electronic sounds. While the composition has structure, it’s not a simple one to follow, and solo statements are shaped to mirror the strangeness at the heart of “Evolution” and to impart contrast and disparity. One of the highlights of “Evolution” occurs during an elongated section where Smith’s muted trumpet commingles with Fujii’s unorthodox piano, and near the end Smith goes alone with a yearning, tender solo which is the album’s most beautiful interlude.

The shortest tune is Smith’s 5:40 “Liberation,” a collective configuration where the two trumpets are at the forefront and Fujii and Mori furnish background elements. Most of “Liberation” has an unobtrusive demeanor, until Fujii drives in at the windup with near-clamorous, two-handed piano chords. The quartet wraps up with Tamura’s aptly-named, 11-minute “Stillness.” At the start, unassertive trumpet notes are layered atop Mori’s electronic ambiance, and then Fujii establishes an equally fragile piano progression. With typical aplomb, the four musicians break the stillness with dissonance, thus balancing ebbed music with aural friction that has agitating dynamism. The changes in “Stillness” run from calmness to cacophony, and back again. “Stillness” is a fitting way to bring Aspiration to a completion, since it exhibits the compositional and improvisational aspects of Satoko Fujii, Wadada Leo Smith, Natsuki Tamura and Ikue Mori. While Aspiration is the first time Smith and Mori have worked with Fujii and Tamura, let’s hope it’s not the last. Aspiration has been issued on Fujii’s own imprint, Libra Records. The CD might be hard to find, but it is well worth searching out.


—Doug Simpson