Masabumi Kikuchi: Unlearning the Piano

Kevin Whitehead

By Kevin Whitehead

on 05.09.12 in Spotlights


Masabumi Kikuchi Trio

Masabumi Kikuchi is one of the oddest modern jazz pianists. As the Bad Plus’s admiring Ethan Iverson points out, he’s so unorthodox some folks deny that he can play at all. Even so, Kikuchi was a favorite of the late and much revered Paul Motian, his pianist of choice in this millennium — which is why, in recent years, Kikuchi has played more than anyplace at the Village Vanguard, Motian’s second home.

The pianist is well deployed on several albums Motian recorded there, notably the first and last of the lot, Live at the Village Vanguard Vol. 1 and On Broadway Vol. 5. Both feature dual saxophones (Greg Osby and Chris Potter on the former; Loren Stillman and Michael Attias on the latter), plenty of Kikuchi’s gloriously obtuse backing for soloists, and one of composer Motian’s classic earworms, “Morrock.” The latter also has an unforgettable, oozing version of the standard “Midnight Sun.”

But the best place to hear how simpatico the pianist and drummer became is Kikuchi’s bizarrely gorgeous new Sunrise on ECM, recorded in 2009. Other drummers create a world of polyrhythms on the kit. Motian might drag a wire brush two inches across a snare drum head, yielding a short quiet rustle that has to bear a lot of weight, like a single brushstroke on a spare canvas. He was a minimalist, reducing drumming to a suggestion. Flash was the farthest thing from his mind.

The pianist, same deal. A couple of notes here and there may be enough to establish a mood, and sense of space: his playing can be as spare as ambient Eno for airports. You can hear as much on the opening “Ballad #1,” Sunrise in microcosm. Bassist Thomas Morgan, another Motian favorite, will insert his bass notes into the piano line, in effect merging their voices, more than he lays down traditional support. Kikuchi’s piano sonorities can be pristinely beautiful, but then he’ll wander off track, let his harmony slide out of shape like a cake left out in the rain.

And then there’s his let’s-call-it singing. Other pianists groan along with their right hands, but Kikuchi takes it to another level. His wizened voice descends on the music like a cosmic haze. It’s too weirdly eerie to dislike.

Odd to think of a longtime downtown Manhattanite as an outsider jazz artist, but Kikuchi can come on like a man from Mars, making up his own impression of musical syntax. When he tells a New York Times writer, “I don’t have any technique,” you see what he’s getting at: He’s an anti-virtuoso, like Motian. Kikuchi just wants to play free, his mind clear of preconceptions; Sunrise is all improvised. Not that that’s always easy to clear the mind; on “Short Stuff” he appears to slide into Gil Evans’s blues-riffing “LaNevada.”

He had to unlearn a lot to get where he is now. When Masabumi “Poo” Kikuchi first came up inJapanin the 1950s, he reportedly sounded like Thelonious Monk, that anti-virtuoso with odd ways of backing a soloist. But by now the resemblance is mostly conceptual.

He sounded relatively normal by the time saxophonist and flutist Sadao Watanabe made 1967′s Jazz Samba, rolling with the chord changes on “It Might As Well Be Spring.” But there are glimmers of the pianist’s later style, as on the street march “Frevo,” where he choose sing-song notes with laggard care, tugging against an irresistible beat. “Surf Board” finds him madly clonking chords and obsessing over an against-the-grain two-note volley for eight bars — a ploy so weird he quickly brings it back. (There’s more early Kikuchi on a similarly samba-heavy two alto meet from the following month, Charlie Mariano & Sadao Watanabe.)

In the early 1970s, the pianist moved toNew York, recording with an Elvin Jones trio and (later) as one of multiple keyboardists in Gil Evans’s roiling electrified big band. While still in Japan, Kikuchi had recorded with ex-Albert Ayler, ex-Bill Evans, pre-Keith Jarrett bassist Gary Peacock. In the early 1990s they formed the co-op trio Tethered Moon with a drummer Peacock went way back with, Paul Motian. That was the beginning of a beautiful partnership.

The trio’s first session included Monk’s “Misterioso,” to remind us what inspired Kikuchi’s gap-toothed phrasing and start-stop motion, and how much he’s remade them in his own terms. Of the several Tethered Moon albums, this listener’s partial to the 2004 release Experiencing Tosca where, sometimes anyway, the trio jump off from shards of Puccini arias. “Part I” shows off the pianist’s chord clanging, sounding less like Monk than slowed-down Cecil Taylor. On “Part II” Kikuchi and Motian hone in on their minimalist concepts, though both would prune back more radically by the time they made Sunrise. (“Blues for Tosca” starts with something very like an actual drum solo.) Kikuchi’s growling reaches fever pitch on “Part III,” but his vocalizing’s not exactly operatic.

Throughout, Gary Peacock’s virtuoso bass playing is a lyrical marvel; he counterbalances his abstract colleagues, where Thomas Morgan meets them on their own ground. Not that you’d ever think of Tethered Moon as a conventional trio — except compared to the one on Sunrise.