Satoko Fujii, a pianist who finds music hidden in the details of life

The pianist Satoko Fujii in Kobe, Japan, March 3, 2021. (Photo: NYTimes)
Whether she’s playing solo piano or leading one of her various large ensembles, pianist and composer Satoko Fujii will tug you toward the details.
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The leader of a dizzying array of ensembles both large and small, Fujii is arguably the most prolific pianist in jazz — if also among the most underrecognized. Since the 1990s, she has released close to 100 albums, mostly through her own Libra Records label. Two years ago, celebrating her 60th birthday, a milestone known as “kanreki” in Japanese culture, she put out a new album each month, including both solo piano and big-band works.

Fujii says that she seems to hear music everywhere, and she feels challenged to channel the sensations of the world as directly as she can.
“This probably sounds strange, but when I compose, I feel like the music is already there — we just didn’t notice,” she said in a recent interview from her home in Kobe, Japan. “I feel like I’m just looking for something that was hidden but that is already there.” The sound of an airplane overhead, an overheard conversation, even the rustling of trees can provide a spark.

Without access to gigs, jam sessions or a recording studio during pandemic lockdown, she felt herself becoming unmoored. On walks around Kobe, she was touched by the uncanny nervousness of the atmosphere, but she and her husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, had nobody else to play with. “Everything was canceled,” she said. “I felt like: Who am I?”

She decided to outfit her tiny piano room, which barely fits her beloved Steinway grand, with a home-studio setup. Then she continued writing and recording and releasing music, at an even faster clip than before.

Across all of Fujii’s work, contradictions come into balance; although her music is abstract and sometimes wild, each element shimmers with clarity. In situations large and small, her tender attention to detail is equaled by her ability to convey enormous breadth and textural range. Listening to her, visual-art metaphors become tempting: These works are as complex and detail-driven as, say, a Mark Bradford canvas, and just as huge in scale.

Since the start of quarantine she has posted well over a dozen albums to her Bandcamp page. They include “Prickly Pear Cactus,” a trio disc that she and Tamura made with electronic musician Ikue Mori, trading sound files via email and building gradually on one another’s work; “Beyond,” a set of serene duets with vibraphonist Taiko Saito; and a solo-piano album, “Hazuki,” available on CD on Friday, featuring compositions Fujii wrote in the early months of quarantine.

Writing by email, Mori said she had started collaborating with Fujii a few years ago after having heard from other musicians on the scene about a pianist with a “dynamic and diverse style.” The “Prickly Pear Cactus” project had allowed them to collaborate at an unhurried pace. “This time, taking our time playing and working on the details, was a perfect situation for both of us,” Mori said.
Born in Tokyo, Fujii was obsessed with music from her early childhood, but she didn’t immediately excel at it. She remembers that classical piano didn’t come easily, and some instructors were less supportive than others. As a teenager, she said, one classical teacher told her: “If you just keep playing, when you get to be my age, like 70, you’d be a great piano player. Anyone can be a good piano player. Just keep playing.”

After high school, Fujii earned a scholarship to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, moving there in 1985. As a young pianist, she was still figuring out how to position herself in relation to the jazz tradition, and she hadn’t yet written much of her own music when she attended a composition master class led by Chick Corea.

“He said that just as we practice playing an instrument, we also can practice making compositions,” she said. “That was very new for me at that time. I decided, ‘OK, so maybe I can just do that.’” Maybe tirelessly putting in the work really was what mattered most — even when it comes to composing.

After Berklee, Fujii returned to Japan for a time, working as a teacher and session musician while developing a reputation in Tokyo as a farseeing bandleader. Then, in 1993, she returned to Boston to attend graduate school at the New England Conservatory. There she studied with the influential pianist Paul Bley, renowned for his wandering, dreamlike approach to improvising. He heard something within Fujii’s playing that she hadn’t completely unleashed, she said, and he encouraged her to cut away as much jazz orthodoxy as she could.

“He said, ‘You cannot play like some other person,’” she said. “‘If you play like yourself, there is a reason to get your CD.’”

The pair kept in touch after her graduation, and in 1995 they recorded “Something About Water,” a remarkable piano duet that was also one of Fujii’s first self-released albums on Libra. Soon she was getting calls to perform around the avant-garde scene in Brooklyn, where she and Tamura eventually moved for a year and a half.

She ultimately returned to Japan but not before laying the foundation for what would become Orchestra New York, a big band featuring many of the finest improvisers in the city. She has released a handful of albums with the group, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year. She has also maintained Orchestra Tokyo, composed of musicians there, and Orchestra Berlin, which she founded during a five-year stint living in Germany in the 2010s. Each orchestra has a different relationship to Fujii’s music, and perhaps she writes a little differently for each one.

Tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby has played with Orchestra New York since the ’90s. He said that Fujii’s instructions to the band can often seem maddeningly understated, and she rarely records more than one take of each tune. Sometimes, Malaby said, it’s not until he hears the recording played back that he gets a full measure of the music’s depth. “The simplicity is beyond the imagination,” he said.

“You’re done, and you’re on the train, and you’re like, ‘What the hell was that?’” Malaby continued, describing the experience of leaving a recording session with the orchestra. “And then you get the CD in the mail, and it’s so powerful.”

He was struck by how ably Fujii applied the language of her solo piano playing to her large ensembles, where she rarely plays a note on the keyboard. “She’s transcended the piano with the orchestra, and it sounds like when she plays trio or solo,” he said.

Fujii said that she doesn’t think differently about the process of recording a solo album or one with a large band. Either way, it’s about using sound to make life’s complexities a little more graspable. “The energy that I spend on a project, whether solo or for big band, it’s pretty much the same,” she said. “I just focus on it, spending time, 100% of my energy.”