We’ve all heard the advice “Just be yourself.” Whether it’s in preparation for a job interview, a first date, or any kind of “performance.” And yet, the advice itself is often part of the problem. Like the command “Relax!”
The 54-year-old Japanese pianist and composer Satoko Fujii has heard this advice several times in her life, but her trip to being “herself” was hard won. At this point, no one would deny her individuality. As a pianist and composer with more than 60 albums to her credit, she has forged a unique amalgam of influences — jazz, classical, Japanese folk. A solo piece might start with a discordant clash of harp-like plucked piano strings that gives way to a series of sweetly meditative chords and then an elaborate improvised melody. With the collective quartet Kaze, Fujii arranges free-jazz explosions of trumpet and drums that can clear for a Morton Feldman-like reverie of meditative chords. Likewise with her celebrated big band recordings, which mix free-jazz ferocity with detailed ensemble writing. Fujii’s coloristic range at the piano, her note choices and marksmanship, distinguish her as a singular virtuoso — player and composer at once.
It wasn’t easy getting there. Fujii — who has degrees from both Berklee College of Music and New England Conservatory and comes to the Lily Pad on Sept. 2 with her husband, the trumpeter Natsuki Tamura — studied for years as a classical pianist in the Tokyo suburb where she grew up. She remembers her first lesson with a jazz pianist. “He said, ‘Just improvise!’ Well, you know, I was there because I couldn’t do it!”
Satoko Fujii and Natsuki Tamura
Fujii had first been bitten by the jazz bug when she was studying with the esteemed composer and pianist Koji Taku, who had quit a prestigious conservatory position in order to play jazz. Fujii, having grown up in a middle-class Japanese household, was stunned. “This was shocking to me.” And so she began to listen to jazz on the radio. Nothing grabbed her until she heard John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” “It was something I had never heard before. I couldn’t understand anything, but I could feel something. Behind this music was a big energy. That was the start for me.”
Fujii tried to teach herself to improvise, but got nowhere. “If I didn’t have music paper in front of me, I couldn’t play anything. I felt like a well-trained dog.”
She decided to quit piano altogether. She formed an experimental band with some friends — using only their voices, hands, and feet, they made a racket together, singing, shouting, beating on the floor. “I wanted to see where music came from. The music our ancestors made, when music was born.”
But she was also going to jazz clubs and discovered that she still loved piano. She took lessons, studied theory, and was soon playing every night in one of the many swing bands populating the Tokyo cabarets. Still, she wasn’t happy. “I thought, Maybe I don’t have the talent. Maybe I’m not gifted.” The best way to find out, she decided, was to commit herself completely. So she enrolled at Berklee.
She auditioned for an arranging class taught by the late Herb Pomeroy. “I don’t remember what I arranged, but it was something based on very basic theory. So I didn’t do anything wrong. But I failed. Herb said, ‘This doesn’t have your voice.’ ” The next semester she tried again, arranging Coltrane’s “Naima” to a funk beat. “I forgot about theory. I just used sounds that I liked,” using “violations” of standard theory. “And Herb really liked it!,” she said.
Several years passed, in which she married Tamura (whom she had met at Berklee) and the couple moved back to Japan. She played in clubs and wrote for music magazines. Still she was dissatisfied. Then she met the percussionist Taki Masuko, who had studied and taught at New England Conservatory, her next stop.
There, she took piano lessons with one of her heroes, Paul Bley. “Right now,” says Fujii, “I’m making music because I want to make music that no one has heard before. I would like to make something unique. Back then, I wasn’t so sure.” She wanted to play like McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea. “I knew it wasn’t right, but it sounded so good!” In the first lesson, Bley said, “Just play yourself. McCoy Tyner is already here.” Fujii felt liberated. “Everything was like that with him” she says of Bley’s pedagogical technique, which is famously part music-business tutorial and part talk therapy.
In her solo and band performances, Fujii says she likes “directed improvisation,” a seamless division between composed and improvised sections — an old dream for jazz composers. All the better for finding that music no one has heard before.
The serenely focused young Boston trumpet player Jason Palmer brings his septet into Scullers on Aug. 28 to play from his latest CD, “Take a Little Trip,” dedicated to ’70s singer-songwriter Minnie Riperton. . . . Also at Scullers, on Aug. 29, pianist Marc Cary celebrates another songstress, his former boss, the late, great Abbey Lincoln, drawing from his album “For the Love of Abbey.” (For more on Cary, see Page 30.) . . . On Sept. 6, the mesmerizing pianist Jacky Terrasson plays Scullers while Derrick Hodge , bassist with the Robert Glasper Experiment, supports his Blue Note debut, “Live Today,” with a gig at the Regattabar. . . . The following week, guitar god John Scofield revives his groovin’ Überjam Band at the Regattabar (Sept. 11 and 12), while Nicholas Payton comes into Scullers (Sept. 12) with his formidable trio, in which powerhouse drummer Lenny White and bassist Vicente Archer support Payton simultaneously playing trumpet and Fender Rhodes. The band’s “#BAM Live at Bohemian Caverns” found them digging dark, heavy grooves indeed.