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“Masabumi has become totally original … He just keeps getting better and better”
- Ethan Iverson, Do The Math

Born 1939 in Tokyo, pianist Masabumi Kikuchi played with Lionel Hampton and Sonny Rollins while still a teenager, and made his recording debut in the early 1960s with Toshiko Akiyoshi and Charlie Mariano. In the 1970s he collaborated with Gil Evans and Elvin Jones and led his own groups, in both acoustic and electric modes, variously drawing influence from Miles Davis and Stockhausen, from Duke Ellington and Ligeti and Takemitsu. Kikuchi was amongst a small group of musicians with whom Miles Davis would regularly confer in his post-“Agharta” retirement period, and recorded a still-unissued session with Miles in 1978. Several of Kikuchi’s 1980s recordings were devoted to the synthesizer, but by the 1990s he was again emphasizing acoustic piano, founding the group Tethered Moon with Gary Peacock and Paul Motian, a unit whose recorded repertoire often examined a particular composer’s or interpreter’s works: the discography includes tributes to Kurt Weill, Edith Piaf, Jimi Hendrix and Puccini. But as Kikuchi recently explained to film-maker Thomas Haley (in the documentary “Out of Bounds”) those days are gone: “I don’t want to be part of someone else’s history … and I’m more free now, because I started believing in myself.” Accordingly, the first ECM album by the veteran Japanese improviser finds him headed into new territory. “Lately”, he says, “when I sit down at the piano I do not prepare what I will play nor do I think about how to play, and I believe I found the way of putting out something new, and I guess I could call it my own”.

In his liner notes for “Sunrise” Kikuchi credits Paul Motian (1931-2011) for pushing him further in the direction of spur-of-the moment discoveries. Realized in 2009, at New York’s Avatar Studios, this session was Paul’s penultimate ECM recording (“Live At Birdland” with Lee Konitz, Brad Mehldau and Charlie Haden was recorded two months later). Kikuchi and Motian are wonderful together, fully attuned – after so much shared work, in Paul’s augmented Trio 2000 bands as well as Tethered Moon – to each other’s idiosyncrasies. “Sunrise” seems both fresh and wise, revealing perhaps some of the emotional tone associated with “late works” as these inventive old masters, players beyond ‘technique’, beyond the need to impress, engage in their parallel, poetic explorations, and reach for essentials. These free and craggy ballads and the luminous waves of sound that wash through them couldn’t have been instigated by anyone else.

Bassist Thomas Morgan’s unerring choice of notes has made him a favourite amongst jazz and free improvising ensembles in New York City. (Previously heard on ECM with John Abercrombie, he is currently touring with Craig Taborn’s trio). Morgan (born 1981) has spent a lot of time with Kikuchi already and the pianist describes him as “incredibly quick to catch on… We’re trying to find new possibilities in ensemble improvisation and we already share a kind of method whenever we play together. But I’m reluctant to use that term, because what we’re trying to destroy is a method too — one that’s brought us up to this point in time.”

Masabumi Kikuchi played solo piano at a memorial gathering for Paul Motian at the Village Vanguard on January 22.

Further ECM recordings with Kikuchi are in preparation.

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