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I first encountered Satoko Fujii’s music more than ten years ago when I got Zephyros to review, and have been following her work since then, but I never managed to see any of her groups perform live until Kira Kira participated in the Earshot Jazz Festival in Seattle. The Royal Room is a great place for a jazz show, with a comfortable, classy atmosphere and excellent sound — a perfect setting for the group’s intriguing music.

by Jon Davis, Published 2019-05-14

photography by Danette Davis

Satoko Fujii at the Royal Room, Seattle, 7 May 2019, photo by Danette DavisEarshot is the kind of festival that takes place over many weeks at many venues rather than being concentrated into a short timeframe. The festival’s Executive Director John Gilbreath introduced the musicians, and the wild ride commenced. Fujii was at the club’s grand piano to one side; Natsuki Tamura with his trumpet and various percussive objects had center stage; Alister Spence and his topless Rhodes, along with a bank of effects, occupied the opposite side; and in the back was local drummer Greg Campbell with his kit and a collection of bowls and other metal things. The core trio of Fujii, Tamura, and Spence have been touring the US and performing with different drummers in each city. I’ve known Greg Campbell for several years, and I’m familiar with his work in a variety of settings — his resume includes work with Nels Cline, Jeff Greinke, Dennis Rea, Rik Wright, and many more. He was a perfect fit for Kira Kira.

Satoko Fujii is like a force of nature at the piano, and her boundless invention on the instrument was on full display, reaching inside to strum the strings, hitting them with mallets, “bowing” them with some sort of string or cord, and even shuffling objects around on the shelf above the keyboard. Oh, and she also plays the keys. In all cases, her actions are not gratuitous, but in service of the sonic textures of the pieces. When she sits down and goes at the keys, it can be like a hurricane of sound, frighteningly intense, but there are also meditative moments of pristine clarity. There’s also a sense of playfulness in her work that may not be obvious on recordings, but is readily apparent when watching her.

Natsuki Tamura at the Royal Room, Seattle, 7 May 2019, photo by Danette DavisTamura was in fine form, very imaginative and energetic — apparently more so than usual, since Fujii remarked that he was “not young” and hoped he wasn’t endangering his health with his playing. He’s known for unconventional playing, and sometimes on the albums he just seems weird, but in this live context it all worked. At times, the musicians would be tossing ideas around and playing off each other, and he would throw in a goofy fart noise as a kind of challenge. There were also moments of melodic invention, and he would often put down his horn and take up any of a number of small percussive items — finger cymbals and the like.

Alister Spence at the Royal Room, Seattle, 7 May 2019, photo by Danette DavisSpence’s electric piano provided a non-acoustic contrast to the other instruments. In addition to playing it in the normal way, he often plucked the tines with his fingers or tapped them with a little mallet and other things. The sound was run through a mixer with a variety of effects available, sometimes producing crazy, chaotic tones, sometimes ominous rumbling or eerie treble washes. I couldn’t see exactly what he was doing, but he managed to accomplish the equivalent of bowing the tines to make a very interesting shimmering ambient sound.

Greg Campbell at the Royal Room, Seattle, 7 May 2019, photo by Danette DavisKira Kira’s music is largely improvised, but it’s always within the framework of a composition that provides recurring themes. These guideposts seem to be triggered by each piece’s composer, so on “Nat 4,” Tamura will signal the end of an improvised section with a raise of his trumpet. Coming into this kind of situation must have been challenging for a newcomer like drummer Greg Campbell, but he adapted well, and also got plenty of chances to make use of his metal objects. He used a wide variety of techniques to elicit sounds, and the metal bowls were particularly effective with their gamelan-like overtones. He fit in like a regular member of the ensemble, and it was great to see him get a high-profile gig like this.

All in all, it was a wonderful evening, and one of the best jazz shows in recent memory. This is a living, breathing art form, and musicians like these prove that there’s more to jazz than nostalgia.


Filed under: Concerts

Related artist(s): Satoko Fujii, Natsuki Tamura, Kira Kira, Alister Spence

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