Masabumi Kikuchi Trio: Sunrise (ECM 2096)

Masabumi Kikuchi Trio

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.)

Jarrett/Peacock/Motian: At The Deer Head Inn (ECM 1531)

Keith Jarrett
Gary Peacock
Paul Motian
At The Deer Head Inn

Keith Jarrett piano
Gary Peacock bass
Paul Motian drums
Recorded September 16, 1992 at the Deer Head Inn
Engineer: Kent Heckman
Produced by Bill Goodwin

By the fall of 1992, Keith Jarrett had already spent 30 years as a notable jazz performer. What better way to celebrate than to return to this record’s eponymous venue in his birthplace of Allentown, Pennsylvania for a once-in-a-lifetime gig? Switching out his usual go-to, Jack DeJohnette, for Paul Motian (no stranger to Jarrett, with whom he’d worked in the 70s), the trio works wonders with the new colors the latter provides. Peacock and Jarrett are both verbose players who manage never to step on each other’s toes. With Motian backing them, they take longer pauses for reflection, listening to the wind as it blows through their leaves. His presence and panache are as palpable as the prevalence of alliterations in this sentence, bringing an irresistible brushed beat to the squint-eyed groove of Jaki Byard’s “Chandra.” That hook keeps us sharp to improvisatory angle and inspires some youthful banter from Peacock, who feeds off those drums like Christmas. Motian excels further in the balance of fire and ice that bubble throughout “You And The Night And The Music.” The band also dips into Miles Davis-era waters with glowing renditions of “Solar” and “Bye Bye Blackbird.” Atop quilted commentaries from the man at the kit, Jarrett’s unpacking of these timeless melodies is the cherry on the sundae. Sweet toppings also abound in the laid-back “Basin Street Blues,” in which, with closed eyes and an open heart, Peacock finds the perfect resolution for Jarrett’s uncontainable fire. All three musicians up the ante in “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” Jarrett negotiates its changes like breathing while Peacock and Motian speak in vocabularies just beyond the radar of feasibility. Before we know it, we’re caught up in a joyous surge and relaxation. By ending with “It’s Easy To Remember,” the trio saves its finest translucent china for last.

The value of ECM as a live archive is proven beyond the shadow of a doubt in this recording. This is where it’s at.

Pierre Favre Ensemble: Singing Drums (ECM 1274)

ECM 1274

Pierre Favre Ensemble
Singing Drums

Pierre Favre drums, gongs, crotales, cymbals
Paul Motian drums, gongs, crotales, calebasses, rodbrushes
Fredy Studer drums, gongs, cymbals
Nana Vasconcelos berimbau, voice, tympani, conga, water pot, shakers, bells
Recorded May 27 and 28, 1984, Mohren, Willisau
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Singing Drums brings together some of ECM’s most formidable percussionists in this one-off incarnation of the Pierre Favre Ensemble. For this date, Favre welcomes Paul Motian, Fredy Studer, and Nana Vasconcelos into his fold. The results are, while brilliant, likely to be overlooked due to the special interest of its instrumental makeup. Let this not deter anyone, however, from experiencing its wonders. What I love most about this session is that each player’s style is so instantly recognizable. Between the twangy call of Vasconcelos’s berimbau, the crotales of Favre, the delicate cymbals of Studer, and Motian’s earthly patter, we can easily tease out every thread of conversation being woven before us.

One finds in these atmospheres broad intimations of times and places, a blurring of geographic and cultural signatures into a mosaic of worldly mindedness, a space where human and animal blur into one another, such that the hands of the player become the keen pounce of a lion in the bush and the leap of the gazelle who thwarts it. Drones and footsteps exchange glances amid the branches of the opening “Rain Forest,” while other tracks like “Metal Birds” work in more clipped gestures. Vasconcelos’s chanting is a vital thread here, and seeks only to enhance the pitch-bent drums and other sinuous energies around him.

This is a profound album of subtle creativity that gets only deeper with every listen. Anyone who knows these performers will not expect an all-out frenzy, but the careful and porous readings of “Edge Of The Wing” and “Prism,” not to mention the whispered accents of “Frog Song.” Theirs is a journey both of anthropology and dislocation, a masterful text written “Beyond The Blue,” which leaves us to ponder the cries of our ancestors, as countless as the stars above our heads.

<< Art Ensemble of Chicago: The Third Decade (ECM 1273)
>> Arvo Pärt: Tabula rasa (ECM 1275 NS)

Paul Bley with Gary Peacock (ECM 1003)


Paul Bley Trio
Paul Bley with Gary Peacock

Paul Bley piano
Gary Peacock bass
Paul Motian drums
Billy Elgart drums
Recorded 1964 and 1968 in New York
Produced by “ECM”
Release date: December 1, 1970

From the moment “Blues” lights the fuse, we’re rocketing through this magnificently swinging album. Pianist Paul Bley proves his comfort in Ornette Coleman territory, easing his way through a series of dexterous detours. His original “Getting Started” follows up with a ballad, its brushed drums giving off a grainy feel, desolate yet comforting. Peacock’s soloing is eager and ever so slightly askew. “When Will The Blues Leave” (Coleman) is a more syncopated affair. Brushes defer to drumsticks, adding delicate punch to the overall sound. Even Bley cannot restrain joyful cries as the mood intensifies. “Long Ago And Far Away” (Jerome Kern) moves forward with locomotive purpose and finds Peacock in an exuberant mood. “Moor” exhibits his soloing and composing, as refreshing as they are restless. “Gary” (Annette Peacock) is a lonely catharsis forged in bass and piano. The bassing here is somber, as if contemplating a jump from a high precipice. When the piano returns, it’s not to pull the bass downward but keep it from falling over. Bley’s own “Big Foot” is a rip-roaring good time. One can feel the lovingness of its creation. Finally, “Albert’s Love Theme” (Annette Peacock) presents us with a new direction as the trio goes its separate ways.

Bley is on point, Peacock hopping with vivacious confidence, as drummer Paul Motian brushes and rat-a-tat-tats his way through five of the eight cuts (the remaining three feature Billy Elgart in his place). The recording, made in 1963 (Motian session) and 1969 (Elgart session), has a classic trebly overlay yet is highly detailed. It’s a listening experience that suggests new focus every time. For this review, it’s Peacock who captures my attention. His fondness for higher registers punches holes in the music and allows the wind to flow through. Considering the time and place this album was cut, and the jigsaw of its talents, it practically recommends itself.

<< Just Music: s/t (ECM 1002)
>> Marion Brown: Afternoon Of A Georgia Faun (ECM 1004)