Arina Fujiwara: Neon

NY-based pianist plays four originals - one a piece with string quartet - and two covers including her solo arrangement of Maple Leaf Rag


Little information is available about Arina Fujiwara. Her debut release is little too. Covering less than half an hour, Neon is a short record that arrives without big claims. But this music is bursting with bright ideas. It’s a lush album with big personality and it steers the listener with a small-but-firm hand. The band leader is in charge and her talent looms large.

Fujiwara is a pianist who recently graduated from the Manhattan School of Music. Neon features Jaycee Cardoso and Sammy Andonian on violins, plus Jeremy Klein on viola and Clara Cho on cello. The strings operate alongside Vid Jamnik’s vibraphone, Brad Kang’s guitar, Dan Finn’s bass and Mikkel Vuust’s drumkit. Such abundant instrumentation offers a wealth of options to explore or subvert expectations.

Two of the six tracks are borrowed from other composers. Hotaru Koi is a Japanese children’s song about a firefly. String quartet takes the lead, above a plodding single-note piano pulse. Then Fujiwara accelerates the pace. A rampaging Hammond-sound solo erupts. Heavily distorted electric guitar explodes. The drumkit hits the ceiling. The firefly has been squished.

The title track starts out sweetly, in five-five time. There’s a vibraphone solo before a long improvisation from piano. Fujiwara is a careful soloist, but plays with fun and friskiness too. Her gift for forming, dissecting and re-forming melodies creates an immersive listening experience. Her interpretation of Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag races up and down the tune’s familiar cadences with a seemingly inexhaustible spirit of invention.

Neon shines bright light on this sharp and stimulating debut artist. Fujiwara’s arrangements and compositions tap into the luminous possibilities of this unusual instrumentation, and her improvisations are captivating. It may be a small album. But it’s mighty. And there are big reasons for excitement about Fujiwara’s future.

Yuki Ga Furu; Hotaru Koi; Neon; Komorebi; Vol.1; Maple Leaf Rag (29.26)
Fujiwara (p, kyb); Vid Jamnik (vib); Jeremy Klein (vla); Jaycee Cardoso (vn); Sammy Andonian (vn); Brad Kang (g); Clara Cho (clo); Dan Finn (b); Mikkel Blaesild Vuust (d). New York City, 2023.