Skip to content

Archive for

The way of the flowers

A year and a half before his death in 2015 at the age of 75, the pianist Masabumi Kikuchi entered a recording studio for the last time. At the behest of the producer Sun Chung, he spent two days recording the series of solo pieces that make up Hanamichi, the final statement of a remarkable musician.

This certainly qualifies as the kind of late work in which ageing artists refine their work to the point where only the essence is left visible. Kikuchi started out playing conventional jazz, went through a fusion period, and eventually found a truly original voice. From the start of the 1990s he became engaged in a process of stripping away all ornamentation from his playing, something that became apparent in the 1990s in First Meeting, the debut album of Tethered Moon, the trio in which he was joined by the bassist Gary Peacock and the drummer Paul Motian, and in his solo albums, Attached, After Hours, After Hours 2, Melancholy Gil, and M. Two albums released in the last decade — Sunrise, a trio with Motian and the bassist Thomas Morgan, and a solo concert titled Black Orpheus — brought his discoveries to a wider audience.

Without wishing to fall for a cultural stereotype, it can fairly be said that Kikuchi’s playing in his final years recalled the process of Japanese calligraphy described by Bill Evans in his notes for Kind of Blue: the careful preparation of the brush and the ink and the stretching of the parchment, followed by the single spontaneous and indelible gesture. As he slowed his playing right down to the speed of meditation, weighting each note and balancing each phrase, obsessively repeating the lines of melody over and over again with minute variations, Kikuchi found new meanings within Carla Bley’s “Utviklingssang” and Luis Bonfa’s “Manhã de Carnaval”.

Hanamichi takes its title from a phrase meaning “the way of the flowers”, applied to the raised platform through an auditorium on which actors in traditional Japanese theatre enter and leave the stage. It is the most moving of valedictory performances. Kikuchi opens by lightly caressing and examining the romantic contours of the pre-war ballad “Ramona” before producing a mesmerising 11-minute “Summertime” fit to stand among my favourite versions of the great Gershwin song, alongside those by Miles Davis and Gil Evans, Booker T and the MGs, Billy Stewart and Albert Ayler.

Two adjacent versions of “My Favourite Things” form the album’s centrepiece. Different in attack and trajectory, they’re like seeing an artist render the same object in aquatint and etching. And they make you think that that Kikuchi could have made an entire album out of this tune, holding it up and turning it slowly to watch the light catch it from different angles. (This is how he operated in solo performance: his 1994 version of “Manhã da Carnaval” was completely different from the one included on Black Orpheus, the 2012 recording of his last public recital, although recognisably the product of the same sensibility.)

They’re followed by a wholly improvised piece displaying the pianist’s characteristic use of the sustain pedal to build overtones, subtly hinting at the sound of bells and a gamelan as the single-note phrases coil around each other, gathering in force before resolving in tranquillity. The programme ends with “Little Abi”, a ballad Kikuchi wrote for his daughter in the 1970s, and which became a signature piece: another lovely tune within which he never ceased to make fresh discoveries.

All in all, this is the most affecting solo piano album I’ve heard since Keith Jarrett’s much-loved The Melody at Night, With You more than 20 years ago. Kikuchi’s lyricism isn’t as obvious as Jarrett’s, but the emotional commitment is apparent in every perfectly deployed note. A fine way to say goodbye.

* The photograph of Masabumi Kikuchi was taken by Tae Cimarosti and appears in the booklet accompanying Hanamichi, which is on the Red Hook label. Attached (BJL), After Hours (Verve), After Hours 2 (PJL), Melancholy Gil (Verve) and M (Media Rings) are now, sadly, unobtainable, although some of them are on YouTube. First Meeting is on Winter & Winter, as are other Tethered Moon albums. Sunrise and Black Orpheus are on ECM.

Hollywood Eden

Summer’s here, more or less, and Joel Selvin’s new book, Hollywood Eden, is a good one to take to the beach, the park or the back garden. Subtitled “Electric Guitars, Fast Cars and the Myth of the California Paradise”, it’s the story of a group of white kids who poured out of the local high schools — Fairfax, University, Beverly Hills, Hawthorne and Roosevelt — intent on using the medium of the pop song to reflect a certain idea of life as it was lived by the jeunesse dorée of Southern California in the first half of the 1960s.

Employed as the pop columnist of the San Francisco Chronicle from 1972 to 2009, Selvin also also contributed to Rolling Stone, the Melody Maker and other publications. His many books include biographies of Ricky Nelson and Bert Berns. It might seem strange to have a study of the Los Angeles scene from a San Francisco author, and indeed I’ve heard a grumble or two from native LA writers. But Selvin has certainly gathered enough information over the years to give credibility to his account.

This is a polyphonic tale switching back and forth between the stories of Jan and Dean, Kim Fowley, Sandy Nelson, Bruce Johnson and Terry Melcher, the Beach Boys, Phil Spector, Lou Adler, Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, Johnny Rivers, the Byrds and the Mama’s and Papa’s as they proceed from the affluence and optimism of white America in the Eisenhower/Kennedy years to the dawn of the hippie era. The story of Jan Berry and Dean Torrence forms the spine of the book, much of it seen through the eyes of Jill Gibson, Jan’s girlfriend, who briefly replaced Michelle Phillips in the Mama’s and Papa’s and is the author’s principal source.

Berry himself was an interesting character: a confident, ambitious, driven young man who came from a rich family, studied medicine and had a fair amount of musical talent to go with his surf-god looks. In 1964 he and Dean had a hit with “Dead Man’s Curve”, a song about a fatal drag race along Sunset Boulevard between a Corvette Stingray and an E-type Jaguar whose morbid echoes gained an extra resonance two years later when Berry, a notoriously reckless driver, crashed his own Stingray close to that very spot, suffering injuries that effectively ended his career as a teen idol.

Other shadows dapple a mostly sunlit narrative: the motorcycle accident in which Nelson lost a leg, Wilson’s breakdown in 1964, and Adler’s cavalier treatment of Gibson when Phillips reclaimed her place in the group. They add a semblance of depth to a fast-paced book that reads like a proposal for a 10-part Netflix series and will certainly have many readers pulling out favourite tracks from the period (my random selection included J&D’s “I Found a Girl”, the Beach Boys’ “The Little Girl I Once Knew” and Bruce and Terry’s “Summer Means Fun”). The book ends without a hint of the horror that will soon erupt — in the form of the Manson murders — to demolish the security of the privileged caste whose golden hour it portrays.

* Joel Selvin’s Hollywood Eden is published by House of Anansi Press. The photograph is from a picture bag for Jan and Dean’s “Surf City” 45.

The bells, the bells…

A peal of church bells is a familiar sound to most, yet full of strangeness. Listening to the baffling patterns created when a simple descending figure breaks up and reforms into a kind of Escher-like musical geometry, you might find yourself wondering if herein lies the true origin of the systems music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass.

The 30-year-old Sheffield-born pianist and composer Andrew Woodhead takes that sound not just as the inspiration but as the practical basis for Pendulums, a new album-length work subtitled “Music for bell-ringers, improvisers and electronics”. The result is a quite stunning achievement in which jazz yet again proves its unique ability to create a constructive interaction with all sorts of outside forms of music.

The bells of St Paul’s, Birmingham — installed 15 years ago in the 18th century church, not far from where Woodhead studied at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire — are the first things we hear in Pendulums, and the last. Eight bellringers are joined by two trumpets, two alto saxophones, two baritone saxophones and Woodhead’s electronic manipulation of the church bells and of various field recordings, including bicycle bells and the chimes of an ice-cream van. This film of a 10-minute section called “Changes” gives a view of the way in which the composer integrates his three basic building blocks, creating something more than just a sound-bed for the improvising soloists. Sometimes he transfers the characteristics of bell-ringing to the wind instruments, as at the beginning of “Tolls/Waves”, where the horns sound unison notes that evolve into a phasing pattern.

I particularly love the way Woodhead uses the four reed instruments to soften the metallic timbre of the church bells and the trumpets, and how he brings out the bells’ overtones to create a universe of sound. There’s quite a lot of free jazz practice here (a reminder that one of Albert Ayler’s most famous works was called “Bells”), notably in the sparring over a simple ostinato transferred from bells to saxophones on “Partials II”, but there’s also an saxophone-chorale introduction to a piece called “Plain Hunt IV” that recalls the Anglican hymnal (and the enigma of Thelonious Monk’s “Abide with Me”).

“Plain Hunt II” begins by processing the ice-cream van chimes into the sound of a spectral church organ before the horns take over with a passage of overlapping long tones, another example of how imaginatively Woodhead is transferring techniques from one set of musical tools to another. Towards the end of this piece the gentle hissing and sizzling of electronics is underscored by the tolling of a single bell: placed at the very heart of this compelling 68-minute suite, it’s a moment of beautiful simplicity.

* Andrew Woodhead’s Pendulums is released on June 11 on the composer’s own Leker label (www.andrewwoodheadmusic.com). Concert performances of the work are scheduled for 14 October 2021 at St Paul’s, Birmingham and 16 October 2021 at St Clement Danes Church, London WC2. The photograph of Woodhead conducting the recording is by Guri Bosh.