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

masabumi-kikuchiSix or seven years ago my musical odyssey, that seemingly never-ending quest for new and exciting sounds, found me digging deeper into Japanese Jazz from the late ‘60s/early ‘70s. This particular interest (some might say hawkish obsession, others waste of money, depending on whether you were interested in my mental health or my pecuniary status) was sparked by hearing Fumio Itabashi’s symphonic version of “Watarase” on Gilles Peterson’s show. Admittedly this version of “Watarase” was a later recording, but one that served as a gateway to the Japanese domestic market and great albums by the likes of Akira Miyazawa, Takehiro Honda, Sadao Watanabe and the artist behind this album, pianist and composer Masabumi Kikuchi. Affectionately known as “Poo Sun” or simply “Poo”, his early albums, modal jazz masterpieces like “End of the Beginning”, “East Wind” or “Hollow Out” with Elvin Jones, remain firm favourites. Like many jazz musicians of his generation electric era Miles was a significant influence and as the ‘70s progressed Kikuchi’s albums veered into jazz fusion/funk territory, although still retaining an idiosyncratic charm.
In later years Kikuchi resolved to find his own sound and his music became a personal journey, performing with kindred spirits like Paul Motian, moving away from traditional song forms towards self-realisation in music.

“Black Orpheus” is a solo piano recital recorded at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan Recital Hall on 26 October 2012, Kikuchi’s final album before he passed away last year at the age of 75. Without wishing to sound overly sentimental it’s fitting that his last album should be recorded in his hometown, as he’d moved to New York in the ‘70s.

The album comprises of 9 wholly improvised pieces, sparingly titled Tokyo, Parts I through IX, and two arrangements, the title track (actually “Manhã de Carnaval” the main theme from Black Orpheus), a version of the Brazilian classic penned by Luiz Bonfá and Antônio Maria, and “Little Abi”, written by Kikuchi.

This is not an easy listening experience, but under the right conditions it is utterly spellbinding. For me it requires a single-minded focus on the music, working best when you can block out other distractions. Stripped of additional instrumentation it’s music at it’s purest, an almost spontaneous expression of ideas, feelings and emotions. It’s intensely personal, an insight into Kikuchi’s inner monologue, a ‘conversation’ that occasionally spills out audibly as he grunts and murmurs whilst performing. I get the sense that Kikuchi found an inner peace during this performance; yes, there are passages of energy, some discordant (during “Tokyo III”, or “..V” for example), unsettling even, but overwhelmingly the sense is of tenderness, sensitivity and contemplation, expressed through unhurried passages of play, of long, lingering notes, moments of silence and gentle melodic phrases. Tracks like “Tokyo Part IX” and “Little Abi” are quite stunning in their beauty. Kikuchi first recorded the latter, written for his daughter, on saxophonist Kohsuke Mine’s 1970 debut; it’s a composition that he has returned to over his career.

On the face of it the choice of “Black Orpheus” seems a little incongruous. In Kikuchi’s hands however it is eminently sympathetic retaining a lot of the sadness inherent in Samba-Canção, but without being overly sentimental.

For me listening to this album has a transformative quality. I’d liken it to watching a film at a cinema in the middle of the day; without realising it your mind is taken elsewhere, an impact that only becomes apparent when you leave and re-enter the world going about it’s business. Masabumi Kikuchi, you will be missed, but fortunately your music lives on.

Andy Hazell