Pianist Masabumi Kikuchi plays like he’s trying to wrestle something new from the instrument on a second-by-second basis. This approach creates a great stillness at the center of his music; on Sunrise, it is largely left to his sympathetic collaborators — bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Paul Motian — to fill in the blanks to form a decipherable narrative. They succeed in this assignment. Although bass and drums tend to defer to piano on Sunrise, due largely to Peacock’s and Motian’s relative versatility, the album is primarily a three-way conversation among close friends. Imagine Kikuchi as a slightly disenfranchised eccentric lovingly attended to by his colleagues. He is a pianist who admits to having little technique, who never swings, and whose point of reference to jazz is limited. These first two qualities are true of pianists Mal Waldron and Ran Blake as well, but the third is not, and this is in some ways the heart of what makes Kikuchi a fascinating subject. In order for him to be successful, certain conditions must first be met. On Sunrise they are. And perhaps there’s more cautionary preamble here than the album needs; listening to it is an entirely satisfying experience. Still, it seems important (and germane to the issue) to give Kikuchi his due, to emphasize how totally he does what he does on his own terms.
Sunrise consists of 10 pieces, roughly broken up into ballads, themes concerned with segments of the day, and a few miscellaneous items. “Ballad #1″ is a peaceful conversation, Kikuchi’s piano often taking the lead, but swayed by what the others have to say. It’s fascinating to hear how one thread of the pianist’s logic that seems to be moving toward a clear cut resolution can shift with a suggestion from Peacock or Motian. “Short Stuff” comes out of the simplest of sources: two major triads, one half-step apart. Somehow, this becomes the springboard for an off-kilter improvisation, with Motian’s drums largely determining the direction. It’s worth noting how sophisticated Kikuchi’s use of the pedal is here. He allows harmonics to hang in the air in a particularly provocative way. The most striking piece (for me, anyway) is the ghostly “So What Variations.” Yes, it’s the “So What” that every jazz fan knows backward and forward. Here, it’s totally transmogrified, with Motian’s drums paraphrasing the indelible bass line and Kikuchi moving the familiar two chord response up to the top of the keyboard. Rather than being about the tune’s usual form (the trio disregards that), it is about memory and resonance. The piece is the only explicit reference to past jazz that Kikuchi invokes, and he manages to make it more personal than historical. The title piece is an elusive bit of impressionism, with Peacock making a particularly strong showing. Kikuchi splashes color around as Motian uses brushes in swift little exclamations. It’s a mysterious piece, to be sure, but a surprisingly optimistic one. Finally a word on the noticeably mid-tempo “Uptempo”: It’s hard not to think Kikuchi is making a statement about the rapidity with which thoughts are conveyed back and forth between the players in this remarkable trio. And to think fast while not playing fast is a paradoxically difficult thing to do in freely improvised music. Masabumi Kikuchi, Gary Peacock and Paul Motian are all masters of the form though, and Sunrise functions throughout at a very developed level.