Tokyo-based avant-garde pianist and composer Satoko Fujii has toured “every continent except Antarctica,” according to her bio. But she samples the local staples whenever she’s in New Haven. “I love clam pizza at Frank Pepe,” she said. “Natsuki” — that’s trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, Fujii’s husband — “likes the Japanese restaurant Miso, that is different from Japanese restaurants in Japan but the food tastes good!”
Fujii’s ever expanding and evolving musical tastes have brought her to Firehouse 12 several times in the last few years. On Friday, she’ll perform with the group Gato Libre in the group’s first-ever U.S. tour. Fujii has joined the ranks of several jazz and experimental-music luminaries — among them Mary Halvorson, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, and Bill Frisell — who have become steady visitors to the Crown Street studio, bar, and concert space as performers and recording artists.
The music of Gato Libre, as captured on the group’s recent album Neko, is a resolute celebration of difference and change. As a trio working without a rhythm section, it employs a much more conversational, spacious approach to modern jazz. Working with harmonically simple compositions, the interjection of emotional turns and extended technique from each player has a huge role in defining the music’s identity. For Satoko Fujii, who primarily performs on piano, the trio offers a departure into a secondary instrument, the accordion, and a different set of challenges.
“I have been playing piano for a long time so I have some technique and vocabulary,” she said in an email interview. “With accordion, I have no technique so I need to concentrate what I would like to express. This is a big challenge and I have found it sometimes makes me discover something deep inside of myself.”
The measured expression is apparent not only from Fujii, whose patient approach to the accordion is a marked difference from her sometimes fiery expression on the piano. Tamura, who acts as Gato Libre’s bandlander, contributes fully tonal compositions to this album; the boundaries of that tonality are tested in group improvisation, but ultimately hold.
The group is working as a trio after the unexpected death of guitarist Kazuhiko Tsumura, and Tamura’s compositions exploit the ensemble’s ability to sustain long tones. Whether in Tamura’s breathy trumpet lines, startlingly clear even at low volumes, or in the cracked-voice melancholy of Yasuko Kaneko’s trombone, or in the shimmering drone of Fujii’s accordion, this is a group that frequently speaks in broad gestures. This infuses even the more active moments on the album with a sense of sorrow, even in moments of group improvisation that hint at a cat-like playfulness (“neko” is Japanese for cat).
Fujii has appeared as a bandleader several times at Firehouse 12 and in the Northeastern U.S. in the last few years, and maintains a consistent touring and recording schedule in Japan, Europe and the U.S. Gato Libre is a rare context for her to play as a sidewoman, in a group where she doesn’t carry sole composing responsibilities.
“I really enjoy doing it because I love Natsuki’s ... compositions so much. They sound different from my compositions. I also think that I can get some influences from their compositions that will expand my music,” she said. Expansion is a major theme in Fujii’s career — in the jaw-dropping 8 releases she has been a part of this year, she covers ground as a solo pianist, as a collaborative improviser, leader of small ensembles. and composer/conductor of jazz orchestra music. Yet throughout each project she has a personal stamp as a player, even on a secondary instrument in a support role, as she appears in Gato Libre.
But Gato Libre defies the standard hierarchy of jazz-related music, with its long passages of unaccompanied playing and delicate interplay. One composition, “Yuzu,” begins as a series of solo statements on a simple melody — first trumpet, then accordion, then trombone, spread out over an expansive seven minutes, where silence and breath become as deliberate a choice as each note. Finally in the last 90 seconds of the piece, each instrument joins together to restate the melody in its own way. Each supports the other and allows the listener a refracted summary of the theme. On “Neko”, the landscape is austere, and change happens gradually. The act of listening becomes more like a meditation.
Gato Libre plays at Firehouse 12, 45 Crown St., on Nov. 10. Sets begin at 8:30 and 10 p.m. Click here for tickets and more information.