Sakoto Fujii Orchestra Berlin is the fifth incarnation of her orchestra, following New York, Tokyo, Nagoya and Kobe. The only expectations allowed, as she moves from location to location, is an anticipation of complete originality and imagination.
Trumpet virtuoso and longtime collaborator, Natsuki Tamura, in the liner notes described the process of recording “Ichigo Ichie.”
“We had a rehearsal on the 24th, a concert on the 25th and the recording on the 26th. There were some musicians in the band who never met before. Fujii had a rehearsal in this fresh and taut atmosphere.”
Still relatively unknown to each other, the orchestra held a concert and recorded the present album in an atmosphere of tense unfamiliarity that is part and parcel of the perceived concept of “Ichigo Ichie.” It was that freshness that contributed beautifully to the “wild” aspects of Fujii’s music.
The Berlin group was infused with Fujii’s Japanese players, including Natsuki Tamura on trumpet, Kazuhisa Uchihashi on guitar and Fujii herself on piano. The Europeans were Matthias Schubert and Gebhard Ullman on tenor saxophone, Paulina Owczarek on baritone saxophone, Richard Koch and Nikolaus Neuser join Tamura on trumpets, Matthias Müller on trombone, Jan Roder on bass and Michael Griener and Peter Orins on drums. Orins also mixed the recording, beautifully.
The title of the album, “Ichigo Ichie,” is so fitting for this album and its setting. In Japanese, “Ichigo Ichie” is similar to the English phrase “once in a lifetime.” More specifically, in Sa-do (the Way of Tea or the tea ceremony) we are to treat every single meeting as a unique opportunity, treasuring each moment so that we may live meaningfully.
So it is with this album. The meeting of these musicians, the encounter with Fujii’s music, our listening to the music and the treasuring of it all in one moment such as this, makes life meaningful.
“Ichigo Ichie” is virtually a Jazz symphony in four movements. The fifth track is entitled “ABCD.”
“Ichigo Ichie 1” begins with energetic attack from the drums. There is a depth in the recording of this album that gives a sense of depth, making one drum sound nearer and the other farther away. The snares, finger cymbals and full-bodied rolls are intoxicating. At 2:38, you hear someone shout support. With the crescendo of crashes and thunderous rolls from the drums, the orchestra joins in full,
There are moments in the entrance of the orchestra that is reminiscent of “Gagaku” which was ancient Japanese court music, often used for the entrance of the emperor. Instead of a divine emperor, this heralds the entrance of divine music.
Jan Roder on bass gets an extended solo until handing it over to an ever-encroaching trombone. The breathing of the trombone is riveting and Matthias Müller is fascinating in his interpretation and execution of the music.
The over-extended higher-range sustained notes were rough on the brass players and Tamura says as much.
“To tell the truth,” he says, “ it is very tough for horn players to play the high half notes and whole notes in the slow tempo…In the recording session we sometimes record two or three takes. When the recording was over, all the horn players said, “Phew! We blew and blew! I will have swollen lips tomorrow!”
The closing of the first movement has a pacing that recalls “Kimigayo” or the Japanese National Anthem. The titles is usually translated as “His Imperial Majesty’s Reign” but there is no official translation. The words literally describe the years of the emperor’s reign as defining the age or generation.
Sadly, “Kimigayo” is not so often sung in Japan because of the ancient attribution of divinity to the emperor which was forcefully abandoned after World War II. It remains the National Anthem but its firm association with the emperor is severed. That “moment” is also over. The “wildness” of the end of the track becomes a lament to an unrecoverable moment.
“Ichigo Ichie 2” kicks off brilliantly. The runs are exciting. The lovely trumpet cadenza is mournful and the patient wail is joined by the other horns in chorus. Uchihashi’s guitar punctuates the trumpet’s intensity with guitar effects.
The saxes get into the scene with an attack to make Ornette Coleman smile. The rhythm section propels the saxophone forward and finishes with the hot motif that started the movement.
It is a seamless transition into “Ichigo Ichie 3.” The control of the trumpet is astounding. Forget phrases like “atonal,” the trumpet work here is percussive and so well-crafted. It is not at all intended to be melodic. It is, instead, narrative. The trumpet is the tragic hero and the orchestra is the Greek chorus.
Owczarek’s baritone sax becomes the antagonist with Roder’s bass bowing subtly underneath. The instruments literally become the voices of the drama. They remain in this delicious “moment” of unique interaction and end the moment in beautiful chorus.
“Ichigo Ichie 4” is the final movement of this Jazz symphony and it returns to the “Gagaku” theme of the first movement. Sax and bass interact after the reintroduction of the theme with the drums joining in for a trio of vivid interplay. The orchestra re-enters piecemeal for the final reintroduction of the theme. The drums lead the way out as they led the way in.
It is four movements of staggering brilliance. It is the musical equivalent of the Zen axiom, “You cannot enter the same river twice.” We are allowed to experience that one moment and no other moment is like it ever again.
Listen to the four tracks of “Ichigo Ichie” two, three, four times or more and it will never sound the same. You cannot hear the same “Ichigo Ichie” twice. Fujii has shown us the beauty and the wisdom of what “Ichigo Ichie” really means.
“ABCD” is the fifth and final track. Although it stands outside the “Ichigo Ichie” symphony or suite, it is a brilliant coda to the work and the album.
“ABCD” opens with a rhythmic “kissing” of the trumpet mouthpiece. The orchestra comes alongside with percussive depths, paving the way for the baritone saxophone inclusion. The drums are broad and far-reaching while the horns add texture to the baritone’s runs.
Finally, at almost the 6-minute mark of this final track, we get to hear Sakoto Fujii herself on piano. She is as brilliant and original in her performing as she is in her composing.
The trombone punctuates her piano touches and, together, they weave a fabric that is both delicate and aggressive. The interaction between the two is simultaneously immediate and familiar.
The full orchestra take a step into the interaction. The freshness of the orchestra’s acquaintances restate the whole theme and idea of Ichigo Ichie—each moment is a unique treasure and is unrepeatable.
The tension of unfamiliarity plus dedication to the music and the orchestra creates that unrepeatable moment. The album concludes with each member of the orchestra contributing their singular voice, not fearing dissonance or atonality or even arrhythmia. They are in complete trust of the music, the composer, each other and, especially, the moment.
~ Travis Rogers, Jr. is The Jazz Owl
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