Listen to enough music by Satoko Fujii — a pianist who refuses to limit herself to the keyboard, manipulating the strings inside the instrument whenever the moment calls for it — and the possibilities feel huge. But instead of listening for how much ground she can cover, it becomes a question of how much space she can fill. Sometimes, big ideas beget big sounds.
The Japanese composer has a hefty new album, “Entity,” out in February with her Orchestra New York, a nontraditional big band with a vivid, imposing sound. Formed back in 1997, the 13-piece group currently includes guitarist Nels Cline, saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, trumpeter Dave Ballou, drummer Ches Smith — and Fujii says she still composes from her home in Tokyo with these exact players in mind. But despite all that careful planning, nothing can prepare her for the moment when the band reunites for rehearsal and her music finally crashes into the room.
“I have been working in this way for more than 20 years, but I still am so impressed every time I hear the band playing my music,” Fujii said in an email from Tokyo. “Written sheet music is just a map. To travel, sometimes we need to have the map, but we also need to walk and explore to get real experience. This fresh feeling has never gotten rusty and this gives me more energy to write music.”
For a musician as prolific as Fujii, generating energy and gathering energy appear to be one and the same. In 2018, she marked her 60th birthday — a milestone in Japan known as “kanreki,” which celebrates the idea of rejuvenation and rebirth — by releasing a new album every month. It turned out to be an excercise in exhaustion, one that Fujii later said symbolized “how I’ve lived my life — deciding on things without much thought, and somehow muddling through.”
That quotation appears in the liner notes of Fujii’s exquisite 2019 album, “Stone,” a rejoinder to the dozen-disc blitz that preceded it. And this music didn’t sound muddled. It was inspired by something Fujii’s late grandmother once told her after she had become deaf: “Now I can hear the beautiful music the likes of which I never heard before.” On “Stone,” the pianist tries to imagine what that music sounded like.
Fujii says that she likes working off a conceptual spark, and that the big sound of “Entity” was rooted in something very small: a Buddhist idea that theorized the existence of the elementary particles centuries before the dawn of modern physics. How about a binding force within her music? Is there something holding her multi-directionality — as a sensitive soloist, a brash improviser, an inventive big band composer and a generous small ensemble collaborator — together?
“With some chords that I might play when I improvise in a solo context, sometimes I can get the source of a new big band composition that might not come up if I only thought about big band writing,” Fujii said. “At other times, when I conduct in front of my orchestra, I hear solo players and the ensemble in musical conversation, and that structure might give me inspiration for my small ensemble projects.”
Fujii will be in the United States this month to record with one of those smaller ensembles, Kaze, a free-jazz quartet featuring drummer Peter Menard and trumpeters Kappa Maki and Christian Bezos. The day after the recording session wraps, Kaze will perform in Takoma Park — something Fujii calls “the most yummy timing” for anyone lucky enough to score a ticket to the show. “The music is still so fresh,” she says, “and we are all still in the midst of creating it.”
If you go, listen close to what’s happening — but don’t forget to listen for what hasn’t happened yet, too. Remember what Fujii said: Hearing new ideas form in the air helps her form even newer ideas. She’s listening for what’s possible. When we’re listening to her, so are we.
Satoko Fujii and Kaze perform at 8 p.m. on Feb. 13 at Alley World in Tonal Park Studios, 7014-C Westmoreland Ave. Takoma Park, Md. rhizomedc.org. $20.