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Satoko Fujii

Jazzed Magazine • April/May 2019Spotlight • May 8, 2019

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Satoko Fujii – photo by Bryan Murray

One of the most unique artists in jazz (or, really, any genre) today, Satoko Fujii’s inventive playing and composition have made her celebrated across the globe – and her reach truly is global. Fujii tours internationally and leads a number of groups of varying size and style. While certainly a “jazz artist,” her music also embraces and incorporates aspects of traditional Japanese music, rock, folk songs, classical, and more into a form distinctly her own.

After having studied piano and classical music from the age of four, Fujii was exposed to jazz in her early 20s and never looked back. Teachers in Japan, including Koji Taku and Fumio Itabashi, solidified her passion for the music. Studies at Berklee College of Music and (after a six-year return to Japan) NEC found her working with such heavyweights as George Russel, Cecil McBee, and Paul Bley.

Her professional career could fairly be described as “restless,” with Fujii tackling disparate approaches and styles on seemingly every new project – the consistent factor, throughout, being the excellence in performance and writing, as well as near-universal acclaim.

JAZZed recently connected with Satoko Fujii to learn about her path as a musician, her approach to learning, and what approaches to jazz education she feels are most effective.

Satoko Fujii – photo by Bryan Murray

Let’s start by talking a bit about your early training as a musician. What were some of the first compositions that resonated with you? Who were some instructors who had lasting impact on your approach to playing and why?

I started taking classical piano lessons when I was 4 years old, but before that I started improvising and composing. I had a lot of fun talking to my mum with some melodies. I was singing and improvising on the piano that we already had in our house because my older sister had started playing piano. My mother loves to listen to music and she played recordings of classical and some Latin music for me. I really loved Argentinian Tango. I always was moved by dramatic music with a beautiful melody in minor keys.

I changed my piano teachers several times. My main influences came from Koji Taku, Fumio Itabashi, and Paul Bley. I studied classical piano with Koji Taku while I was in high school. He was one of the most important people in the classical music world in Japan. He was the head of the piano department at the best music school in the country, but he quit that job because he wanted to play jazz and cabaret. This is very unusual in Japanese society. People value the professional position more than what they really want to do. He didn’t care about that. He just followed his gut and did what he wanted. I was a teenager and his way of living influenced me in a huge way. I actually started listening to jazz music because he liked jazz.

Fumio Itabashi is my favorite jazz pianist and I asked him if I could take lessons. He was very influential in teaching me how to enjoy playing music. Then I studied with Paul Bley at NEC and that was like a revolution for me. He encouraged me to play my own music.

So Mr. Taku served as your gateway to jazz. What artists or songs served as the “spark” for your interest in jazz and your move away from studying strictly classical music towards improv and jazz?

Yes, while I studied classical piano with Koji Taku, I started listening to jazz because he loved jazz. And I really respected him. I couldn’t enjoy most jazz that I heard on the radio, but one day I listened to “A Love Supreme” by John Coltrane and I was completely knocked out. I was so moved by something I really didn’t understand. I started listening to jazz more seriously after that. At the same time, I noticed I couldn’t improvise at all if I didn’t have any written music in front of me. I was so shocked because I could improvise when I was very little before I started studying classical music. I felt like I was just like a well-trained dog that can do something if they are told. I tried improvising on the piano, but I had to give up it, and left piano. Instead I started using my voice and some percussion to improvise. I was away from the piano for more than one year.

How did you wind up connecting with Fumio Itabashi and how would you describe your scholarly pursuits at that time?

After I stopped playing classical music and piano, I started going to jazz clubs in Tokyo. I heard Fumio Itabashi who became my favorite pianist and I asked him if I could take some lessons. I wanted play like him and, because of that, I came back to piano. But I was very different from him. He was born as a musician. I am not like that. I am a person who needs to understand something before I do it. I still love his playing, but now I know that I am different from him.

Interesting. What drew you do Boston – first for studies at Berklee and, later, at NEC – and what are your present-day impressions of your time at those two schools?

I was taking piano lessons from Fumio Itabashi and at the same time I started playing professionally at a cabaret in Tokyo. I was not very good, but my bandmates encouraged me and said I would be better if I kept playing in the band professionally. I did it more than 12 months and I found myself not so much better and I started thinking, “Did I put in enough effort?” I had to say, “no” about it. I thought I couldn’t give up without enough effort. So I decided to study at Berklee where is far away from home, so I could not run away. I actually studied so hard and practiced so hard while I was in Berklee. I think I became much better.

I moved back to Japan when I graduated, and I started having a professional career there. I did many different things, but for some reason I lost my goal. I wanted to stay away from the music business and figure out what I wanted to do. And that is why I made up my mind to study at NEC. At Berklee I worked hard to play like someone else… like Herbie Hancock or like Bill Evans, et cetera. At NEC I worked hard not to play like anyone else. I found my own voice.

An important evolution, to be sure. Can you discuss your studies with Paul Bley? What about his methods of teaching connected with you?

I didn’t know that Paul Bley taught at NEC when I entered the school. I was so happy when I found out he was there since he is my favorite pianist. His teaching was very unique. We didn’t spend so much time playing piano. We talked and talked and talked… at some cafe. But after talking with him, I improved a lot. Talking to him worked better than long-time practice. I think my brain started working differently. That was just like magic. He gave me many tips and hints that would work immediately. I started looking at things differently after I talked to him. I think I had the same idea that he had, but I couldn’t find it before I talked with him. 

Trumpeter Natsuki Tamura and Satoko Fujii, photo by Bryan Murray

Do you currently, or have you ever, given private lessons or conducted master classes? If so, what do you enjoy about both formats and do you prefer one to the other?

I used to teach piano and theory. Sometimes I do master classes, but I don’t do them regularly. I like teaching master classes better than private lessons. I expect too much of students if I teach privately, which often doesn’t work.

You’ve played and studied with a number of folks. What do you feel is more valuable to young musicians, particularly jazz students: formal education or “learning as you go” by playing with other artists?

I know many great self-taught musicians, but I needed to go to school to get a formal education. I think there are many different ways to learn. In either case, we need to have enough experience performing music in front of an audience to be a good player. That performing experience, on the bandstand, is the best way to learn.

Having led a number of big bands, as well as performing in smaller groups and as a solo artist, is there a structure you prefer over the others?

I like doing all of these formats. They are all different, but in myself they all connect with each other. I sometimes get an idea and motivation for a piece for large ensemble by playing solo. I cannot give up any format. I love them all!

How do you feel about the “status” and presence of jazz (or lack thereof) in popular culture? Do you feel jazz needs to attract more and younger fans and players?

We need more listeners. People are now too busy with the Internet. They don’t come out for concerts like they did 10 years ago. Live music performance is an “experience” that is different from watching TV or YouTube. I am sure that the music can be better with many enthusiastic listeners. 

Thanks for your time, Satoko. Last question: What advice would you impart to jazz educators out there?

I think it is better to teach what the student can do – not what they cannot do. Students can expand on the things that they can do if they see what they can accomplish. Probably the most important thing is to let them know they can do whatever they want. I have been seeing many beginners and students who are so afraid to make mistakes. Well… making mistakes is the best way to learn. Without mistakes we cannot learn.

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