Masabumi Kikuchi: Hanamichi

Hanamichi is the final recording of Masabumi Kikuchi (1939-2015), a pianist whose fingers left indelible prints on many a keyboard. Produced by Sun Chung, a former ECM producer and now head of Red Hook Records (of which this is the debut release), the album drops like a stone into the ponds of our hearts. The resulting ripples take form as six tracks, yet it is in the unquantifiable rings of space between them that Kikuchi plants his notes as seeds for a crop that has outlived him. What distinguishes Kikuchi’s agricultural process is his refusal to prune away a single sunburnt leaf or dying plant. He takes care to describe those apparent imperfections as beauties in their own right because they are real, honest, and unmanufactured.

The not-quite-standard “Ramona” and the more-than-standard “Summertime” brim with such regard. The introductions to both breathe with a lived sense of geometry. Kikuchi tends to every stem like an ikebana master who works with his eyes closed. Just as the visual impact ceases to matter for one so accustomed to flowers, the sonic impact recedes for Kikuchi, who turns every contact of flesh and ivory into an emotional prelude beyond the confines of melody. His willingness and ability to capitulate to these moments come out of an understanding that intimacy has little to do with isolation but is just another name for connectivity. In the spirit of Paul Motian, the drummer with whom he played for more than two decades, the technical abilities required to evoke so much with so little are obscured. It is their shadows we encounter, if not also a hint of the light that casts them. He is the bird who flies for no other reason than to glorify the wind.

Unlike jazz players who unpack a thematic statement to expose hidden messages in even the most familiar tunes, Kikuchi reverse engineers them to unfamiliar origins. Two cases in point are his starkly different versions of “My Favorite Things.” Where the first molds nostalgia into a knotted internal dialogue of ringing chords, the second is the dream to its waking, performed in fearless slow motion. From these contemplations comes an “Improvisation,” which Kikuchi smooths into an altar for relatively percussive offerings.

“Little Abi,” a ballad he wrote for his daughter that was a cornerstone of his repertoire, concludes with a tear-inducing farewell. The pacing here is so cinematic that the listener cannot slide so much as a piece of paper between one movement and the next. How he accomplishes this while still allowing for so much breadth is unfathomable. A contradiction in words, to be sure, but an organic comfort in his sound.

To the details of said sound, Chung’s ears are lovingly matched, and Rick Kwan’s engineering seems to elucidate two inner songs for every outward one rendered. As in Kikuchi’s use of the sustain pedal, the recording team allows notes to inhale deeply before they exhale their songs into the ether. Thus, the studio functions as an extracorporeal lung—and perhaps by no metaphorical coincidence, given that the pianist had survived cancer of that very organ.

The term hanamichi (花道), literally “flower path,” is a Japanese idiom of kabuki theatrical origins that signifies an honorable end to one’s career. Listening to the session it titles, however, one could be forgiven for thinking of this as a beginning, given that final recordings are often new listeners’ entry point into the intangible wonders of great artists. Hence, the vintage Steinway on which he plays. While the family name is synonymous with world-class instruments, its literal meaning of “stone path” reveals another secret. The way of stone is an immovable trajectory from birth to death, raw and astonishing in its lack of repetition. All of which reminds us that every recording is a ghost of its creator, of whose soul we are but temporary hosts.

Masabumi Kikuchi: Black Orpheus (ECM 2459)

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Masabumi Kikuchi
Black Orpheus

Masabumi Kikuchi piano
Recorded live October 26, 2012 at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan Recital Hall
Recording director: Satoshi Takahashi
Recording engineer: Masatoshi Muto
System engineer: Shinya Tanaka (SCI)
Mixed at Rainbow Studio, Oslo by Manfred Eicher and Jan Erik Kongshaug (engineer)
Album produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: April 1, 2016

Recorded live on October 26, 2012 at the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan Recital Hall, Black Orpheus presents the late Japanese pianist Masabumi Kikuchi (1939-2015) in a solo improvised concert. While some players, when given this much room to roam, travel ever inward, Kikuchi is that rare exception who builds monuments ever outward, and it’s all we can do to grab a railing or window for the ride. Having played with many greats across as many eras of jazz history—including Elvin Jones, Gil Evans, Miles Davis, and Paul Motian—Kikuchi was sufficiently prepared to strike his own match. And while his fire may have burned slowly but surely in an unassuming corner, its smoke infused the entire structure surrounding it. Such is the possessive effect of his music, which in Part III especially plays hooks to our loops in spiritual Velcro. Even before that, as Part I unspools its dreams into reality, thus revealing what Ethan Iverson in his liner notes calls Kikuchi’s “extraordinary vulnerability and corresponding extraordinary magic,” the truth of his hands is already obvious.

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Kikuchi’s sense of space is more about the space of sense. In Part IV, for instance, his ability to shape the resonance of a single note is like that of a master sitar player in his treatment of decay. His fingers feel connected to the key long after the hammer hits, indeed working that extraordinary magic into sounds otherwise thought of as liberated. And while there are more convoluted strains to be found here, as cultivated in Parts VI, VIII, and IX, there’s nothing remiss about their breathing patterns. That they share the same lungs as Part VII, a deeply affective sandwich of cloud-soft bread and raw meat, is all the more remarkable. Each mode nourishes the other, so that whether painting a moving image one frame at a time in Luiz Bonfá and Antônio Maria’s “Black Orpheus” or evoking the quiet joys of “Little Abi,” a tune written for his daughter, he understands that human bone is both the most resilient and weakest architecture, capable of bearing more weight than anything the body housing them can create before it collapses.

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Masabumi Kikuchi Trio: Sunrise (ECM 2096)

Masabumi Kikuchi Trio
Sunrise

Masabumi Kikuchi piano
Thomas Morgan double bass
Paul Motian drums
Recorded September 2009 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Assistant: Rick Kwan
Produced by Manfred Eicher

On paper, Tokyo-born pianist Masabumi Kikuchi may look the stranger, but put laser to disc and we’ve known him for decades. His prodigious talents were already clear in his teens, by which time he was sharing stages with Lionel Hampton and Sonny Rollins. He cut his first record—1963’s East & West—for Victor with Toshiko Akiyoshi and Charlie Mariano, the latter of course with formative ECM connections in work with Eberhard Weber. Kikuchi would get even closer to the label when he formed a trio with Gary Peacock and Paul Motian in the early 90s, releasing a string of albums under the moniker Tethered Moon for Winter & Winter. From there, Kikuchi continued his alliance with Motian on this ECM debut, adding 31-year-old bassist Thomas Morgan, for his most intuitive session yet. Having torn a page or two from the book of Paul Bley in the past, Kikuchi cites Motian as a major influence on his more recent endeavors, and indeed we feel in his artistry a pianistic equivalent of the late drummer, forever curious about what might be dancing just around the corner. That this would be Motian’s penultimate recording makes his contributions all the more poignant. His tsking filigree and palatable intimacy treads every rubato path like a millipede, predicting likeminded bursts of spontaneity from the keys.

Three tracks marked “Ballad” twine their way into the album’s skeleton, its veins pulsing with the nourishment of a freely improvised suite in ten parts. The lack of rehearsal is proportional to the music’s power of realization, rendering arbitrary such individual titles as “New Day” and “Short Stuff,” in spite of their economy of description. The listener will note that our idiosyncratic leader has a vocal presence, not so much singing like Jarrett as straining and growling against the tide that threatens to subsume him. As for Morgan, his bass creeps in at times like sounds from dreams upon waking. His gestures are listless and sincere, each a new ligament that leaves us stilled in golden light.

Kikuchi’s surname (菊地), if one wants to be literal about it, translates to “land of chrysanthemums.” It’s an appropriate analogy for quiet splendor of this all-too-ephemeral trio’s sound. It is similarly horizontal, training its microscopic lens wide and far within rather than trying to spike or send it skyward, until by the end it has thinned to comforting invisibility.

(To hear samples of Sunrise, click here.)