Album review

Masabumi Kikuchi- ‘Hanamichi: The Final Studio Recording’

Masabumi Kikuchi – Hanamichi: The Final Studio Recording
(Red Hook Records 1001. Album review by Alex Merritt)

Masabumi Kikuchi (1939- 2015), also known as ‘Poo’ (from his Japanese name Poo Sun), was widely regarded as a master pianist and improviser with an illustrious career that included periods of working with jazz greats Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Mccoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, Gary Peacock and Paul Motian, and collaborations with Gil Evans and celebrated Japanese composer Tōru Takemitsu. His tenure with Paul Motion’s trio 2000+ resulted in some remarkable albums late in the lives of both of these formidable musicians. Their dazzling live sets, where the two would often musically and sometimes even verbally spar as they deconstructed/reconstructed Paul Motian’s music at The Village Vanguard, where I was lucky enough to hear them in 2009, brought Kikuchi a degree of recognition outside of the cognoscenti.

These six tracks, presented here as Hanamichi, are significant as they document Kikuchi’s final studio recordings. This recording effortlessly balances the resolutely personal, highly dynamic and often chromatic free improvisation Kikuchi was known for with a romantic, almost rhapsodic, take on classic songs such as Summertime and My Favourite Things.

The two very different readings of My Favourite Things here demonstrate something central to Kikuchi’s mature style. Recorded on two different days, these takes show how Kikuchi follows his temperament and mood, whether to present a melody in full, carve it into an abstracted version or play on song form at all.  

His abstractions are often miraculous, as on the 1st take of My Favourite Things or the crunchy, dissonant counterpoints that appear in Summertime whilst he improvises over a modal ostinato that dispenses with the tune’s harmonic scheme after a brief nod to it in the opening. The two-hand, imitative counterpoint here reaches an apex later in the album on Improvisation and recalls the sound world of the modernist composers György Ligeti, Conlon Nancarrow or Dmitri Shostakovich. There is dense chromaticism here, extended use of the piano’s lower end also and a comfort with jarring dissonance.

Kikuchi’s own aesthetic resounds throughout – he seems to be able to make anything stylistic work because of how he plays with contrasts. The shmaltzy blues phrases in Summertime, which sound almost Vaudeville, might sound corny in other settings but here come across more like a Charles Ives-style juxtaposition against his chromatic, looping ostinatos. Kikuchi expertly sucks the listener into these clashing, thematic internal landscapes that build remarkable momentum then stop as arrestingly as they start.

When playing on song form, such as Mabel Wayne’s Ramona which opens the album, Kikuchi maintains something of the freedom we hear on Improvisation or My Favourite Things #1. The opening introduction to Ramona is astonishing and beautiful; bright, resonant chords (that almost recall John Taylor) morph into carefully chosen sonorities, a free segue and then we are (somehow!) into the theme. We are mesmerised by Kikuchi’s world from the outset and the interest does not let up.

Furthermore, the music is permeated with an incredible consideration of dynamics and nuance; Kikuchi gets a magnificent sound from the piano and weights different notes within chords artfully. This may be something that he developed from his training with Herb Pomeroy as a student at Berklee, which Kikuchi recalls as a consideration to…”Harmonize the sound not only with the notes of chord there, instead care for dynamics of the sound”. Kikuchi’s touch, control and presence is captivating and though he was known for singing along whilst he played, on these tracks, the minimal amount of this you do hear just adds to the intensity of the performance.

The emotional depth of the painfully beautiful Little Abi, a personal standard written for his daughter in the 1970s, which closes the album, is remarkable for its sensitivity and a distilled, profound simplicity. The pedal section in this tune somehow seems to ground and root the whole musical experience of Hanamachi – Kikuchi has led us through a multifarious musical journey and the music is coming home, finally to rest.

Most strikingly for me, Hanamachi showcases Kikuchi’s magical ability to improvise with form on a large scale. Years of freely improvised solo piano performance, as well as a whole career of playing jazz with many of its leading figures, has allowed Kikuchi to create real-time composition of the highest order. There is an arc within each tune but also within the album itself that, whether through his own or Red Hook Records’ doing, is wonderfully programmed to end on the poignant statement of Little Abi which closes with an octave that seems to timelessly ring out as Kikuchi plays his last recorded note.

Masabumi Kikuchi, an outspoken character, doggedly committed and uncompromising, may be a jazz figure that people need to search out and sit with until the beauty of his music is self-evident, but the effort is well worth it. Hanamichi is a very important modern jazz recording that will pay for much repeated listening as its depths are revealed in time.

LINK: Listen to and purchase the album

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