Composer, arranger, and pianist Satoko Fujii leads her first big band on South Wind, a set that is as shocking as it is delightful. The reasons for the shock are the series of tonal and improvisational acrobatics she puts her 15-piece orchestra through and the montage technique she approaches harmony with. Her predecessors are clear -- many of them (Joe Maneri, Jimmy Giuffre, Paul Bley, and George Russell) were her teachers at the New England Conservatory; but her method is her own. Creating backdrops from available sources -- brass, winds, reeds and rhythm -- is the backbone of her style. Not a solid surface for soloists to fly from and return to, but solid as a coloring tonal device on which to erect particular structures of harmonic and intervalic counterpoint. Using only her own and her husband's compositions (the trumpeter Natsuki Tamura), she can create a palette from which the lines between improvisation and written script blur, and then fade altogether. By equating microtonal strategies she attains a different approach to harmonic convergence and orchestral consonance -- though the sound to the listener may seem dissonant. The territory where the entire album turns from and heads to is the four-part suite "Seasons." Fujii uses the elementals of the orchestra (four winds there, a brass instrument and the piano here) to achieve fluidity by which other strands, sequenced according to mood, mode, and rhythm, enter the dialogue and fill in the scene. By the time the entire band is in there pitching, the entire body of music has shifted from one space to another -- a tonal world where scalar approaches to solos don't work, but inverted harmonic sequences do, along with their resultant pitches. And yes, it swings in its own way, but the swing is the thing and it's definite; it's not just a bunch of improvisers blowing each other out of the chart, but whistling themselves -- and their section members -- through them. The texts are adventurous but playful, and austere yet lush in others. This is first-rate big band music. Based on her two solo outings and her duet with Paul Bley, there is no limit to Fujii's abilities as a composer, pianist, or bandleader. Bravo.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek