The cover of this disc depicts what appears to be the flames of a setting sun igniting a band of cumulus clouds. The music itself is being experienced by your humble reviewer on a wet, chilly, alabaster evening in early February, and as both Satoko Fujii's piano and Joe Fonda's bass erupt out of the stereo field, such illustrated contrasts become apparent, literal, and livid.
Let's note the pedigree of these players at the outset. Pianist Fujii has developed a reputation over the years, deservedly so, as one of improv's leading lights, a clever and savvy performer of her chosen instrument who manages to combine the dexterity of Monk, the naked abstraction of Cecil Taylor, and the impressionistic flights of fancy so beloved of Paul Bley (for whom the lengthy opening piece is named, Bley being Fujii's mentor) into a commandeering whole that is far more than the sum of its parts. Virtuoso bassist Fonda has performed with a number of jazz luminaries, most recently with Barry Altschul; his fingerstrokes are nothing less than volcanic, bespoken with a unique percussive attack repurposing the grandeur of Miroslav Vitous and Eberhard Weber in one mighty package. The two came together, having never met, let alone ever performed together, before, in a fortuitous happenstance, recorded in a church in Portland, Maine in 2015, that resulted in the works documented here.
Fonda breaks through the sonic membrane on "Paul Bley" first, his huge, earthy sound working below Fujii's first tentative upper register flutters like a bubbling magma displacement. But soon Fujii's cluster tones tickle across the soundstage in a cascading run of thrusting keyboard stabs, velvety trills, and more brazen fisticuffs. All the while Fonda's formidable thunder bellows underneath, providing a fully articulated stream of notes that Fujii responds to with a near telepathic sense of tonal synergy. Fujii's husband and frequent sparring partner, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura provides some beautifully languid accompaniment on the second shorter excursion, "JSN", adding his usual mercurial vibe to an already heady brew. The very nature of the recording itself is practically a corresponding third instrumental element: live, this performance was undoubtedly captivating to behold, but on CD, the production and sound is absolutely electrifying.
Fujii's work can sometimes recall a contemporary such as Vijay Iyer, but her unbridled energy and never-ending flow of ideas remains far more texturally inviting and aurally stimulating. She's a force of nature, one to be reckoned with, which positions Duet as one of the most vital discs of its type you'll hear this year.
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