Red Hook Records
Masabumi Kikuchi was a pianist working across jazz and improvisation. We don’t always get to know aspects of the rich story of the Japanese musicians creating jazz unless we seek it out – although Kikuchi not only created solo piano albums and was the leader of small combos, he also intersected with some of the true greats of the genre, collaborating with Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis, Elvin Jones and McCoy Turner too. He was part of Paul Motion’s trio for both live and studio sessions – and then there’s the small matter of is own extensive catalogue: A movie soundtrack, part of the trios Tethered Moon and Slash, appearances on recordings by Pee Wee Ellis, Joe Henderson and Mal Waldron and then some two dozen recordings under his own name – solo, duos, trios, small combos, stints on the synthesizer, even an avant-garde take on the big band. So much material there – vast and varied.
Hanamichi is his final set of studio recordings – released posthumously, six years after it was recorded. It features Kikuchi at the piano, in improvisational mode, creating on the spot, taking standards out for a stroll and forgetting (on purpose) when he was due to return them home, though never absent in his though is the intention of widening his gait nor challenging the normal route.
The first revelation on this quiet, contemplative, subtly thrilling album is the nearly 12-minute overhaul of Summertime. Gershwin’s melody is there, and draped in aspects of the blues – you could almost imagine Charles Mingus lighting up behind it with a whipcrack of drums and bass and then reciting a poem declaring the song a racist treatise. Kikuchi all but transmogrifies it – but at the same time we remember its Porgy & Bess placement through his long search to redefine the melody.
Even more instructive of the deep process Kikuchi went through with songs is the centre-hinge of the record, two back to back versions of My Favourite Things. Recorded on different days they speak to different moods, are informed by the pianist feeling different things on different days and so taking the music with him through that.
Version one states the melody in the intro – and then drags the song and audience through musical bramble, only to tumble down the hillside. Version two starts of so gently that it is almost not there. Somewhere deep in the chords and this new voicing we hear aspects of the original melody, teased out, reworked, arguably forgotten as much as rearranged.
This is how Masabumi’s improvisor-brain worked. He often lamented a lack of technique, but it’s all there when you listen to this. The freedom he expressed came from the freedom he experiences when sat at the keyboard.
I’ve had this album on a loop for days now, six songs across 42 minutes – you can feel and hear so much in the music and sometimes even more in the spaces between. He was one of the greats, an individual and singular talent. And this is an elegiac swansong.