Masabumi Kikuchi ‘Hanamichi: The Final Studio Recording’ LP/CD (Red Hook) 4/5

Celebrated Japanese pianist Masabumi Kikuchi was largely known for his highly original melodic sensibilities, an articulate approach to harmony, and in his latter years for free improvising within a jazz setting. In December 2013 he entered a New York studio and over the period of two days he proceeded to make what would be his final studio recordings. During these sessions, former ECM producer Sun Chung encouraged Kikuchi to perform tunes and reinterpret the material in his own idiosyncratic way.

Throughout this intimate recording, Kikuchi’s focussed intention delivers a deeply personal set of tunes. Listening to the exquisite nature of his playing is like hearing an old master baring his soul for one final time. It’s as if his life story and innermost secrets are there for everyone to witness in the music he is performing. There was no setlist for this session, the pianist simply called the tunes and played them in the moment, as he felt them. The resulting album is mesmerising from start to finish. One final solitary dance from the revered Japanese pianist.

“Ramona” is a touching piece, thoughtful and reflective in nature. With its almost minimalist approach, one can hear a warmth and sensitivity that captures a wonderful moment in time. Kikuchi brings his own inimitable style to the classic “Summertime”. There’s a gentle longing in the pianist’s playing that suggests perhaps reminiscences of years gone by. As with ECM’s most famous solo piano raconteur Keith Jarrett, Kinuchi commands the tune in his own personal way. There are two versions of “My Favourite Things”, each offering something different and confirming the pianist’s improvisatory spontaneity. Whilst the shorter version is a more daringly vibrant improv, it’s the longer take that I prefer, with its skilful use of time and space giving it a deeper, darker presence. “Improvisation” flirts with interchangeable ideas that bounce from one place to another, a journey in itself. “Little Abi” takes the listener back to the pianist’s reflective nature, each note reverberating gently through Kinuchi’s experienced fingers.

Kikuchi’s recording debut was made in 1963. After entering a contest for overseas musicians, sponsored by Down Beat magazine circa 1968, Kikuchi won a full scholarship to Berklee College of Music, USA, before leaving for Berklee playing with Sonny Rollins on his Japanese tour. Kikuchi formed his own ensemble and recorded the internationally distributed ‘Matrix’ in 1969. As he gained acclaim as a bandleader, he also became in demand as a sideman and featured artist for both performance and recording projects with jazz’s most celebrated musicians. To date, Kikuchi is featured on 62 album releases, including 25 as leader and 22 as co-bandleader. He remained active till his death in New York in July 2015, aged 75. “Hanamachi” is a fitting end to the pianist’s lengthy recording career.

Red Hook Records is a new label launched in 2020 by former ECM producer Sun Chung. One can certainly identify with the ECM connection in more ways than one on this release. Beautifully recorded and of excellent quality, just two ECM hallmarks that stand out here, Red Hook intends to offer musicians opportunities to interact with creative minds, share insights, explore and carve new adventurous ways of creative wayfaring. With an aim to dissolve musical boundaries through the interweaving of musical genres and the exploration of intercultural collaborations, it will be very interesting to see what music the label releases in the future.

Mike Gates

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Masabumi Kikuchi ‘Black Orpheus’ CD (ECM) 4/5