Prolific and passionate pianist Satoko Fuji debuts new band in North America

After releasing an album a month in 2018, composer Satoko Fuji hits the road with her new quartet Kira Kira.

Satoko Fuji Kira Kira

When: May 9, 7 p.m.

Where: The Western Front, 303 E. 8th Ave.

Tickets and info: From $20, at

Satoko Fuji is an incredibly prolific player whose discography includes an estimated 80-plus recordings. Last year, to celebrate her 60th birthday, the Japanese pianist/composer/bandleader decided to release one CD per month. Ranging from large orchestra to solo works, the scope and range displayed on the dozen recordings reinforces why this soft-spoken artist has been called “the Ellington of free jazz.”

Her expansive interests and seemingly endless ideas of how to approach interpreting compositions put her in a very select group of jazz musicians whose output appears limitless.

“Sixty is a very important age mark in Japanese culture, so I wanted to do something that reflected that which wasn’t just a big party or something,” said Fujii. “I was thinking about how many CDs I had scheduled for release in that year, which was about six or seven. These were set with dates already, so I figured “why not make it 12?””

If that sounds a bit crazy, Fujii says that jumping right in is just the way she works. Had she thought about it more carefully, she wouldn’t have done it for any number of financial or logistical reasons. For better or for worse, she’s glad that she did now.

“People wonder how I keep so varied, and it’s really to keep myself engaged.” she said. “If it had been 12 solo CDs, it would have been much more difficult, and meant spending far too much time alone in my head. Working with a wide range of other musicians and styles was why I could continue making music, as it more interesting and moves along.”

One of the banner-year recordings was Bright Force, a session with her collaborative quartet Kira Kira. Fujii brings the band to North America for a tour this month which stops in Vancouver in early May. The touring band includes Fuji and her frequent collaborator and husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, joined by keyboardist Al Martin on Rhodes piano and a cast of rotating drummers. She described how the band came to be following a number of encounters dating back to 2006 and her first Australian tour.

“I had met a very good Australian pianist named Alister Spence, who had very sharp ideas about music with a very clear concept of contemporary jazz piano playing, which is not my style,” she said. “The next time we met was many years later, and I was really surprised at how much he had changed his style to being very open, brave and improvisational. We started to discuss doing something together and the dialogue kept developing.”

Spence contacted Fujii when he was receiving his Ph.D to say that he needed to write some pieces and thought he could do some charts for her big band. The charts were a success and the Melbourne jazz festival offered them the opportunity to do some more playing together.

“Natsuki and I joined up with Alister and drummer Tony Buck who is a member of The Necks and it went really well,” she said. “But the next time we had the chance to come together in Japan, Tony couldn’t make it, so we asked Ittetsu Takemura (one of Japan’s most in-demand jazz drummers) to join. We made our CD out of that show and felt that it worked so well that we could tour the project with different drummers in each place.”

Even without the rotating drummer’s stool, each Kira Kira show will differ wildly from the next.

This is a group whose musical foundation is based entirely on feeling the moment and going for it. In Japanese, Kira Kira means “to sparkle or twinkle brilliantly,” and the way that they blast-off into Bright Force with Spence’s Because the Sun certainly supports the conceit that this band shines. Where Spence’s opening piece is quite explosive, featuring fast keyboard interplay, Tamura’s Nat 4 is all about bursts of loud trumpet solos juxtaposed against the kind of drum solo segment. Fujii’s three-part Luna Lionfish suite moves into totally different realms of the other two composers, honing in on melodic shifts and atmospheric elements.

On the whole, Bright Force is a showcase for the genius of session drummer Takemura. His solos are everywhere and just bristle with energy and invention. No doubt about it, this is going to be a blast for any skin basher who gets to sit in for the concert.

For the Vancouver show, no less a titan than Dylan van der Schyff will be drumming. Fujii and Tamura have played with him and cellist Peggy Lee on a visit to the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival some years ago. The pianist anticipates the session will be a celebration of the very first time that they ever played in Vancouver.

“Ken Pickering, who we miss a lot, put us in the Western Front that first time,” she said. “So this is sort of a homecoming in memory of that. We are very thrilled.”

Check out the entire Satoko Fujii output at

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