The Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York Celebrates a Birthday with 'ETO'

A charming, comedic, challenging recording.
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etoWhenever I get a chance to check out what Satoko Fujii is up to, I jump at the chance. The pianist-composer is one of the most exhilarating working today and each development represents the passage of a different musical stroke that must be crossed if we’re to be truly creatively free.

The Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York commemorates the 60th birthday of Fujii’s husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, with ETO.

The Orchestra New York is the longest standing big band of the quartet of big bands Fujii works with, so it’s the perfect fit for such merriment. At the core of ETO is a suite that pertains to the Chinese zodiac and “kanreki,” a special Japanese celebration for 60 year olds.

“We use the Chinese zodiac in Japan, which is called ETO, so 12 years is one cycle,” explains Fujii. “Sixty is a special number because it is 12 times five and 10 times six. I wanted to write some music for this, and read a bit about the Chinese zodiac. Each of the 12 animals in the zodiac has its own character and each character inspired me a lot, so I wrote a short piece for each of them to make one long suite.”

There are 14 sections to the central “ETO Suite,” starting with an overture. The movements are relatively short, all near or around the two-minute mark, but they reveal Fujii’s compositions as comical, delicate, charming, and spirited.

The pieces must make a strong impact in a short period of time, so it’s crucial that the instruments are up to the task. Whether we’re talking about trombonist Joey Sellers invoking the “Ox” as it burdens from side to side or trumpeter Dave Ballou drawing on the brightness of the “Hare,” the players are more than up to the challenge. “Monkey” is a particularly comedic track, as you might expect, and the sounds that come out of “Horse” are confounding.

Along with “ETO Suite,” there are three other pieces on the recording. “The North Wind and the Sun” opens the album with a full, opulent sound. “Stroll” concludes in much the same fashion, although there’s a touch of mystery in the air.

As an ode to turning 60, I can think of no better tribute than this. ETO is a lovingly-composed, keenly-recorded piece of big band magic that features one of the most exciting, diverse suites I’ve heard in quite some time.