• Carla Kilhstedt, violin
  • Satoko Fujii, piano

What makes music happen? "Happen," as in magically transporting the musicians and thus the listeners into a little universe particular to a performance as it goes down. Certainly, in such a concert of improvised music - where sonic images and coherent forms rise up out of nowhere, where the musicians are in complete (unspoken) agreement on all levels -- it's as if no one can play a wrong note even though none of the notes are written down -- the rarity of that possibility, and then the given that the music is, in fact, improvised, means that there is no damn way that what I just heard - did I really hear that? - will ever happen again.

So I'm thankful for both the illicit recordings and the authorized digital-recordists who bring us at least a representation of the once-in-a-lifetime spontaneous compositions that improvisers will into life out of nowhere, without previous discussion, bringing unique personal languages developed from their own life-experience prior to the music meeting.

Luckily for this CD, Satoko Fujii and Carla Kihlstedt met twice, and both times the music was recorded. In 2002, this duo opened with a 20 minute set on the first show of Rova's 25th anniversary season in San Francisco. I had this feeling: the natural teaming of violin and piano in their hands pretty much guaranteed intriguing music. (In fact, if you think about the violin sonata: Beethoven, Ives, Feldman among many composers, loved the combination.) And we know that both of these musicians had the experience of performing in this combination in their personal experiential reservoirs as they walked onto the stage that first time.

Remembering that 2002 show later, I invited Fujii and Kihlstedt to go for it again at the 2005 Music Unlimited Festival in Wels, Austria. This second meeting in Wels was less conducive to a great performance as both players were separately on tour, appearing in Wels on the day of the concert, part of a festival with all the distractions (nice ones) that that implies. Plus: there was a much dryer acoustic onstage, and a not-so-quiet PA necessary for the festival audience. And yet... wow!...smoking!!

What's up? My dissection of the magic leads to one primary cause: two of the most generous musicians in the improvised-music scene onstage, alone together. That generosity might, in other circumstances, be seen as a fault; ...as in "generous to a fault." But their ability to listen is a direct result of that generosity, and it in combination with some innate ability to respond to every little nuance; that is the key to what really makes the duo sing. At least that's my theory; just check out minutes 6 to 8:30 from the Wels track (track 4). That is the definitive proof of just how well they can move, feint, and change up at the smallest musical suggestion from the other player, and they show us throughout the CD just how deep improvised music can go in the hands of two great artists. They show us exactly how improvisation can become the strongest tool in a composer's toolbox, but that is the subject for another time and place.

Larry Ochs (ROVA Sax. Quartet)


Carla Kihlstedt Carla has played the violin for most of her years on this planet. It has been the vehicle that has brought her through many approaches to music-making, from her beginnings in the classical world to her present many-headed musical life. Kihlstedt has studied at the Peabody Conservatory of Music, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Oberlin Conservatory of Music.

She is a composer, an improviser, a vocalist, and a member of several long-term projects, including 2 Foot Yard, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, and Tin Hat. Aside from her various identities within these bands, Carla has had the opportunity to work with many wonderful musicians including Fred Frith, Lisa Bielawa, Ben Goldberg, Carla Bozulich, the Rova Saxophone Quartet, and Tom Waits.


Satoko Fujii Many say that Satoko Fujii is one of the most original voices in jazz today. She's "a virtuoso piano improviser, an original composer and a bandleader who gets the best collaborators to deliver," says John Fordham in The Guardian. In concert and on nearly 40 albums as a leader or co-leader, the Tokyo resident synthesizes jazz, contemporary classical, avant-rock and Japanese folk music into an innovative music instantly recognizable as hers alone. Since she earned her graduate diploma from the New England Conservatory of Music, Fujii has led some of the most consistently creative ensembles in modern improvised music. Her trio with bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Jim Black has released five CDs, all of which earned places in critics' year-end Top 10 lists. In 2001, she debuted an electrifying avant-rock quartet featuring Takeharu Hayakawa, Tatsuya Yoshida, and Natsuki Tamura, and their high-energy CDs were hailed by listeners worldwide. Fujii has also established herself as one of the world's leading composers for large jazz ensembles. Since 1997, she has released a steady stream of acclaimed releases for large ensemble, culminating in 2006 when she simultaneously released four big band albums: one from her New York ensemble, and one each by three different Japanese bands. In addition to playing accordion in her husband trumpeter Natsuki Tamura's Gato Libre quartet, she also performs in a duo with Tamura, as an unaccompanied soloist, and in ad hoc groupings with musicians working in different genres. She tours regularly appearing at festivals and clubs in the U.S., Canada, Japan, and Europe.



Henceforth confirme sa direction entre improvisation et musique contemporaine dans une tentative de concilier des beautés concurrentes. Carla Kihlstedt et Satoko Fujii font une musique très improvisée qui retient des musiques contemporaines et classiques la qualité du son et de l’intonation, la précision particulière à ceux qui se sont astreints à la discipline classique sans en être entamés. On entend dans ce duo la présence d’un énorme corpus de musique autour des deux musiciennes et la capacité de jouer ensemble nouée par des corps instruits. Elles ajoutent à cela une capacité réelle à improviser sans se perdre : on pourra leur en faire le reproche ou bien aimer infiniment la sûreté de leur art plein de force et de grâce. Elles jouent toutes deux avec gourmandise, semblent attraper d’une main les beautés mélodiques et, de l’autre, la pâte sonore, et les faire tournoyer dans le plus grand plaisir qu’autorise une technique impeccable. Pour ma part, on l‘aura compris, je suis conquis.

- Noel Tachet, Improjazz France

Featuring two live recordings from performances at Rova Saxophone Quartet's 25th Anniversary Festival in San Francisco in 2002 and the Music Unlimited Festival in Wels Austria in 2005, this exhilarating record demonstrates the highest levels of musical interaction.

Kihlstedt is known mainly for her work in the avant-garde group Tin Hat and the art-rock group Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. Fujii is an icon in the avant-garde world, working in many configurations and instrumentations from duo to big band.The two players met for the first time at the San Francisco festival and the degree of communication verges on the unbelievable. Both players described the experience in almost mystical terms, especially Kihlstedt:

"The very first time we played together we found an inexplicably mutual language that has, since then, been an amazing fertile playground for us. We always seem to arrive at places that neither of us could possibly find on our own. It's one of those rare and exciting moments in which I don't feel like we're improvising so much as we're uncovering whole fields of lost artifacts."

The results of these feelings are directly audible, as the two women play in a white heat of passion. Minamo is much hotter than the very fine record Heart Mountain by violinist Tanya Kalmanovich and pianist Myra Melford, making the latter seem sedate by comparison. This, of course, does not mean better, but just that this live meeting crackles with enormous energy and faster musical reflexes.

Fujii and Kihlstedt listen very closely to each other and respond to each other's gestures, shifting from lead to accompaniment effortlessly. Development happens organically and with such an extremely natural feeling that at times the music sounds composed. Part of the joy of listening to Minamo are the many different sounds and textures created both individually and together. While the music can get quite dense at times, there are many other instances of beauty. Excitement is never far away as the smallest seed is seized upon and then expanded-this is what makes the record wonderful. The last track, "Remainder of one, Reminder of two" is over twenty-six minutes without one second of flab or diminished concentration, and thus the music is easy to follow. Listening thus becomes for the listener the same journey that Kihlstedt and Fujii took on stage. Minamo is a triumph.

- Budd Kopman, All About Jazz

This 51-minute CD represents the complete recorded works of the duo of violinist Carla Kihlstedt and pianist Satoko Fujii: three tracks totaling 24 minutes from the kick-off concert of ROVA's silver anniversary season and a 27 minute piece from the Larry Ochs-curated 2005 Wels Music Unlimited festival. Both performances were improvised introductions to the saxophone quartet, and the brevity of these sets may be a key to the success of the music, which has the concentration and focus of the most intense modernist chamber music. It's not just the instrumentation that will suggest a classical sonata. Kihlstedt and Fujii are clearly steeped in genre and in the repertoire, with the strongest affinities being to Bartok and Prokofiev (with a nod to the special impressionism of Takemitsu). It's tense and tensile stuff, with a steely formal intelligence just beneath the surface.

The playing is absolutely beautiful, and oddly enough it's beautiful in that classical way in which you might separate an individual's performance from the music that he or she is playing. There are moments here, as in the spontaneous melody of "One Hundred and Sixty Billion Spray," that are executed so well it wouldn't matter what the notes are (if such a distinction could be made, and it often is). But the two are actually making this up from the material of their interaction. Fujii is especially adept at elaborating form, sometimes creating a complex dialogue between left and right hands that follows, frames and amplifies Kihlstedt's lines. That expressive richness here (the Bartok/ Prokofiev lineage) springs from Kihlstedt's profound sound and attack, as rich and dynamic as any violinist who has entered the improvising community.

The way the two will choose pure sound to frame one another is also noteworthy. Kihlstedt's use of harmonics is forceful enough to suggest electronics while Fujii finds tremendous resources on the piano strings, creating sustained atmospherics like sea and rain shower and gravel. The later "Remainder of One, Reminder of Two" has the evanescence of Crumb's "Night Music." It's all delivered with the special intensity of people who didn't have a long time to get acquainted. Not so much a triumph of improvised music over the composed, rather it's improvised music that's acting like a special kind of through composition.

- Stuart Broomer, Point of Departure

On "Minamo" the violinist Carla Kihlstedt and the pianist Satoko Fujii ply the craft of post-jazz musicians all over the world: live, free-improvisation duets. Most records like this imply that the two musicians rarely get a chance to play together. (If they did, they might invest in the partnership more: write some music, book a studio, set up a Web site for the project, give it a name.) And some are perfunctory, of course. But not this one. "Minamo" is extraordinary, a series of tight, dramatic events.

Both Ms. Kihlstedt, who lives in California, and Ms. Fujii, who lives in Japan, have conservatory backgrounds. Both eventually threw themselves into non-genre-specific writing and improvising, drawing on rock, Cecil Taylor, Bartok and much else; you're more likely to find them in a jazz festival than any other kind. (Ms. Kihlstedt is a member of the bands Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and 2 Foot Yard; Ms. Fujii leads her own trio, quartet and orchestra.) They performed together onstage in 2002 and 2005, in San Francisco and in Wels, Austria, and this disc captures both concerts.

Even without written music the musicians have plenty of ground under their feet: vamps, patterns, echoed motions. Both play with virtuosic precision and a great range of technique, even when the music becomes gestural and built on hummingbird pulses, glassy wipes of the violin strings, dark rumbles of rubbed piano strings. The whole record, but especially the second concert, runs on its own vivid tension.

- Ben Ratliff, The New York Times