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.