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Music Review: Satoko Fujii and Myra Melford – Under the Water

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Pianists Satoko Fujii and Myra Melford were introduced to each other by pianist Paul Bley in 1994. Melford was playing a solo performance in Boston and Fujii was a student at the New England Conservatory. Fast-forward to 2007 and the two performed a duet concert for the first time in Tokyo with promises to do it all over again. When Fujii was in the United States nine months later, the second meeting was arranged and thankfully recorded at the Maybeck recital hall.

Under the Water captures the second meeting, gracefully reflecting the solo and duo performances by these compelling figures in music. For those expecting some sort of classical music duel to the death, this is certainly not it. Instead, through the course of five improvisations, this is a classic meeting of personality, vision and creativity.

Melford and Fujii play with no previous discussion of intent, allowing the organic flow of ideas to infuse all parts of their instruments. They scratch the strings, thump the sides and pound the keys with imperative magnificence, engaging one another in one of the strangest and most gripping musical conversations I have ever had the pleasure of listening to.

Under the Water, released April 20 of this year on Libra, takes a lot of time and patience to endure. Those used to standard song progressions and delicate piano chords might be put off by Fujii and Melford’s unstructured and tense playing, but the process is ultimately satisfying.

Fujii has become known as one of the most original voices in jazz. Renowned for her synthesis of contemporary classical, jazz, folk and avant-rock music, she has been featured on more than 50 albums and has led a number of ensembles. She is a courageous player, passing through genres and styles effortlessly in her exploration of sound.

Melford, currently serving on the music faculty at the University of California, makes for fantastic company. She has over 30 recordings under her belt since her 1990 debut. Having studied North Indian music in Calcutta, Melford boldly infuses her compositions and playing with non-Western influences.

To say that Melford and Fujii simply begin playing to start the recording is accurate. While there is certainly a clear theme, the two women listen to one another and pluck responses from intuition.

“Yadokari” begins with tapping and plucking of strings. Both women are inside their piano instead of sitting on the bench, seemingly tinkering with the inner workings of the instruments. Named for the hermit crab, the piece really does invoke images of the crustaceans scurrying around on a beach searching for a can or shell to call their home.

Once settled in, Fujii plays her solo (“Trace a River”) and the two collaborate for “The Migration of Fish,” a dazzling piece that places the two in alternate but accommodating creative spaces.

Melford’s solo, “Be Melting Snow,” surges with left-hand figures and varying rhythms.

To end the recording, “Utsubo” reunites Fujii and Melford. They play through a brief six-minute piece based on the moray eel. With shadowy, edgy chords from Melford, the piece is built on a bizarre groundwork of noise and acoustics.

Under the Water is not an aesthetically pleasing piece of dinner music. It is, instead, a challenging and artistically rewarding set of improvisational pieces that venture through some very strange, very dark territory. Fujii and Melford perform with urgency and honesty, conducting their individual performances as responses to the other and allowing true imagination to bloom through the splendour of sound.

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