Name: Satoko Fujii
Occupation: Pianist, composer, improviser
Nationality: Japanese
Current release: Satoko Fujii's Underground, an album featuring Futari, Fujii’s duo with mallet virtuoso Taiko Saito, is out via Libra.

If these thoughts by Satoko Fujii piqued your interest, visit her official website. You can also find her on Facebook, bandcamp, and Soundcloud.

If you'd like to keep reading, we also have an even more expansive Satoko Fujii interview.

For many artists, a solitary phase of creative development precedes collaborative work. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your first collaborations?

I started playing music when I was four, playing piano by myself. My first professional gig was playing in a cabaret house big band. I was kind of shocked by how loud the drums and horns were, and struggled to find my space in the band musically. I didn’t know how I should listen to the music while I played.

When I started playing with Natsuki Tamura, my husband, I discovered that collaboration is very much like a conversation. I don’t need to speak all the time, sometimes I can just listen. The basic idea of “collaboration” is listening to each other, listening to the collaborators, myself, and space.

Tell me a bit about your current instruments and tools, please. In which way do they support creative exchange and collaborations with others? Are there obstacles and what are potential solutions towards making collaborations easier?

I play piano, both the keyboard and the strings inside. I  like to open and free myself when I make music, so if it feels right, I use my voice and whatever I need.

What were some of your earliest collaborations? How do you look back on them with hindsight?

I think I am the luckiest musician because I’ve worked with so many great collaborators. For some reason, I’ve collaborated with many other pianists, Paul Bley, Misha Mengelberg, Myra Melford, Alister Spence.

I have found that playing with other piano players is a  little different from playing with other instrumentalists. I can feel their cogitation.

Besides the aforementioned early collaborations, can you talk about one particular collaboration that was important for you? Why did it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?

For me, all my bandmates are my collaborators as  they play my music.

I still remember my first large ensemble recording in 1996. I had performed with large ensemble before then so I didn’t get nervous. The recording went so easy. But after the session when I got back home, I was not quite right! I hit my foot on the chair, spilled a glass of water, etc.

Working with 14 extraordinary collaborators at same time was extremely special. I hadn’t realized in the moment how intense it was.

What are some of the things you learned from your collaborations over the years?

Listening with my ears and all my senses makes the collaboration easy and fun!

How do you feel your sense of identity influences your collaborations? Do you feel as though you are able to express yourself more fully in solo mode or, conversely, through the interaction with other musicians? Are you “gaining” or “sacrificing” something in a collaboration?

I don’t think about who I am while I make music, I think it comes out, anyway.

When I play “solo,” I need to hear myself and play from it. When I get collaborators, their voices help me to find my voice, so I am “gaining” not “sacrificing.”

There are many potential models for collaboration, from live performances and jamming via producing in the same room together up to file sharing. Which of these do you prefer – and why?  

I like them all. They are all good in different ways.

Is there typically a planning phase for your collaborations? If so, what happens in this phase and how does it contribute to the results?

During this COVID-19 era, we were forced to try new ways of collaborating, through the Internet and/or swapping  audio files. I wouldn’t have done these things if the COVID-19 pandemic had not happened.

I think I took this bad period of time and used it as a chance to make something different, learn something good. I made several albums using these techniques and I love the results.

What tend to be the best collaborations in your opinion – those with artists you have a lot in common with or those where you have more differences? What happens when another musician take you outside of your comfort zone?

I like playing with musicians who are like me and who are not like me. Either way, I need collaborators with similar values.

For example, my husband Natsuki Tamura has very different musical expression but I love playing with him. We both share the same values about music, life, etc. He is my oldest collaborator but I have never gotten bored collaborating with him.

Do you need to have a good relationship with your collaborator? Or can there be a benefit to working with someone you may not get along with on a personal level?

That is a difficult question because I’ve never had that experience. I will see if it happens in future.

Some artists feel as though the creative process should not be a democratic one. What are your thoughts on the interaction with other musicians, the need for compromise and the decision-making process?  

I talk with my collaborators when I need to, but I usually don’t need to talk. We talk in music.

I have never compromised. Music can get us to a place where we all agree – no need to talk.

What's your take on cross-over collaborations between different genres?

I myself am a  cross-over musician. Many jazz mainstream music fans think I don’t play jazz, nor am I a rock musician. Yet I have enjoyed many collaborations with rock musicians. They think I am a jazz musician!

I really don’t think about genres. I like what I like.

In a live situation, decisions between creatives often work without words. How does this process work – and how does it change your performance compared to a solo performance?

Music can talk if we just let it. I think we don’t need to decide anything. I like to let music be itself.

There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you as part of a collaboration? In which way is it different between your solo work and collaborations?

Just relax and listen and let music speak! This is always the basic mindset for any musical format.

Collaborating with one's heroes can be a thrill or a cause for panic. Do you have any practical experience with this and what was it like?

My debut album Something About Water is a two piano duo album with my hero, mentor and teacher, Paul Bley.

I was very thrilled about the collaboration. Once we started playing together, it was so much fun and I knew all would go well if I just enjoyed the experience.