While Satoko Fujii describes herself as lazy, the contentedly indolent and blissfully idle must look elsewhere for a role model.
Since recording her first CD in 1996, the Japanese pianist and composer has put her prolific peers to shame, releasing a veritable flood of albums documenting a dizzying array of ensembles. And it’s not like she’s sacrificing quality for quantity.
After listening to at least half of her five-dozen CDs, including solo recitals, free improv duos, a celebrated trio with bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Jim Black, a Japanese rock quartet and four geographically distinct big bands, what’s most impressive is Fujii’s seemingly bottomless well of strikingly personal musical ideas. To hear her tell it, her tireless work ethic is merely a self-imposed antidote to her propensity toward sloth.
“The reason I write so much stuff is that I know I’m lazy,’’ said Fujii, 53. “I’ve got a big band performance tomorrow in Tokyo and now I have to write something. I don’t want to have a gig with all old repertoire! I know I have to push myself. I love to write and I compose every day, but I need to set up something beforehand or else I can’t focus.’’
Fujii performs tomorrow at the Lily Pad with trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, her husband and frequent bandstand partner. It’s Fujii’s first Boston date in a decade, an unaccountable absence given her deep Beantown ties.
Trained intensively in European classical music as a child, Fujii became fascinated by improvisation toward the end of high school. She followed the well-trod path from Japan to Boston, earning a scholarship to Berklee College of Music and graduating in two years. Returning to Japan in the late ’80s she found lots of work while the economy was still booming, but little that satisfied her creatively.
After five years, she returned to Boston to study at the New England Conservatory, where her teachers included George Russell, Cecil McBe, and Paul Bley, who gave her the ultimate letter of recommendation by joining her for a series of shimmering piano duets on her first album, 1996’s “Something About Water.’’
While she’s probably best known for her orchestral work, Fujii has made something of a specialty out of the duo format. There’s 2007’s “Minamo,’’ an album of cagey, free improvisation with violinist Carla Kihlstedt, and 2009’s “Under the Water,’’ a probing, playfully rough-and-tumble two-piano session with Myra Melford.
Melford is hardly a slacker herself, with half a dozen ensembles and more than 20 albums as a leader or co-leader, but she confesses to being “amazed’’ at Fujii’s output. “She goes everywhere in every sized ensemble, and she’s got so many creative ideas of how to work with and write for all these contexts. Whatever she does, she doesn’t sound like anyone else.’’
Not surprisingly, Fujii’s most frequent duo partner is her husband, Tamura, a highly regarded composer and bandleader in his own right who possesses a wondrously pliable tone and vast timbral palette. They also play together in the trio Junk Box with percussionist John Hollenbeck, the rock-oriented quartet Gato Libre, and the spacious chamber quartet Ma-Do. Now dividing their time between Tokyo and Berlin, a central base of operations for performing around Europe, the couple can pull from any number of books and bags.
“Sometimes we play my compositions, sometimes his compositions, and sometimes we decide to just improvise,’’ Fujii says. “Our music is very different. I’ve heard many musician couples have trouble when they play together, but that hasn’t happened so far. We know we’re different and we respect each other and we don’t say bad things to each other, which is very important. But we’d probably be the last person to say good things.’’
In many ways, Boston brought them together. They met in the mid-’80s in Tokyo when Fujii held down a nightly gig with a Count Basie repertory band. Tamura occasionally sat in with the group during warm-ups to keep his chops solid, and Fujii’s bandmates warned her that he was a smooth operator.
“The first time we met he came over to me and said, ‘Maybe we can go to a beach somewhere,’ ’’ Fujii recalls. “I said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m busy.’ ’’
A few months later she left to study at Berklee, and on her first trip back home, Tamura called her up to ask about her experience in the States. Immersed in Tokyo’s studio scene, he was fighting creative ennui, and decided to check out Berklee, too. Fujii sublet an apartment for him near Fenway, but on his first night strange noises emanating from the walls drove him out.
“He called me up at midnight,’’ Fujii says. “He was really scared, and I also listened to the sounds from the telephone. He said, ‘I’m coming to your place.’ We started living together and we ended up getting married while we were at Berklee.’’