Satoko Fujii Orchestra East/Orchestra West – Double Take

Satoko FujiDouble Take
Satoko Fujii Orchestra East/Orchestra West
( East Works Entertainment – 2000)
by John Barrett

One disc is live, the other a studio date; the repertoire is largely the same. Two bands, from Japan and America; only the composer and her husband appear in both groups. The menu is the avant-garde, in all flavors: “South Wind” starts in whispers, and plucked strings. An oriental theme arises, played first by Fujii’s piano, then hummed by brass and squealed by everyone. Whistles blow throughout, and chaos is just below the surface.

The four-movement “Ruin” is a series of landscapes: swirling horns on “The Desert”, stark contrasts on “The South Pole”. Satoko tremolos softly, while trumpets go mad: wah-wah effects, Natsuki Tamura’s unearthly screams – and then video-game noises! “Outer Space” marches with menace; all things collide on “Megalopolis”, a piece which is all sound, all fury. It calms a little for “Okesa-Yansado”, where the opening theme is “sung” – and I use the term loosely. (Compare this to the version on the Jo album, done by Orchestra West – horns take the theme, with the power of Coltrane’s “Ascension”.) “Sola” is the highlight of this disc, where a soprano mourns and is joined by the band, in odd harmonies and unexpected directions. This sounds like the early avant-garde: a respect for form, an eagerness to change it. The concert ends, the applause is great – and the music continues half a world away.

While the Japanese group was more experimental, Orchestra West is warmer; the sound of the brass will embrace you. (Another plus is Stomu Takeishi; his bass is active, like a funk guitar.) “The Desert” is more active than the East version, with pungent voicings; Oscar Noriega weeps sweetly on alto. The trumpet interplay is subdued for this “South Pole”; Dave Ballou murmurs, while Steve Bernstein slurs like a trombone. D.J. Firehorse adds ‘Eighties-style scratching, for extra percussion where it’s needed.

The “Megalopolis” is less crowded, with short bursts of brass, reacting to Takeishi’s energy. First the saxes erupt, then indescribable screams from Tamura – between the Pink Panther honks of Chris Speed. A clarinet quartet wanders calmly on “Jog Wheel” (hear ‘em unhinge at the end) while “Exile” is a crowded lament. Joe Fiedler trudges a weary trombone (Takeishi “boings” behind him); Tony Malaby has a sweet minute or so. “And Then” starts tough, and becomes a sort of ragtime, and Satoko is a joy. She dances on the keys, Cuong Vu toodles a muted waltz, and the horns change in full-swing power. Describe the song and you describe the album: it takes chances in accessible ways, goes from abstraction to warmth in a heartbeat, and packs a big punch. And in that regard, East or West doesn’t matter.