Black Orpheus features music drawn from the last solo recital of a highly individual artist, the Japanese pianist Masabumi Kikuchi (1939-2015). It represents the full flowering of Kikuchi’s late style, with an individuality which resists concise summary. For Masabumi, the Tokyo recording proposed “a new approach to the solo piano formation.”
“His playing had a kind of cloistered originality”, Ben Ratliff suggested in a New York Times obituary, “with long silences, and a keyboard touch that could be delicate or combative.”
Fellow pianist Jacob Sacks, like Kikuchi an associate of the late Paul Motian, wrote in 2015 that Masabumi “was easily one of the most original artists working in sound and music…I think that what he achieved musically (especially in the past ten to fifteen years) is both in an individualistic sense and in terms of artistic bravery on a par with Monk. All of us who play creative music on the piano should be aware of his accomplishments. His art was one of incredibly strong convictions…He took real musical risks and found things most of us can only dream of finding.”
The music on the Tokyo recording is for the most part delicate and space conscious, and moves by its own inner laws of logic. Kikuchi spoke about chasing an elusive “floating sound”, unconnected to anybody’s musical history but his own, but in the Tokyo concert is open to the prompting of his imagination which brings him gradually – we hear a couple of hints of the melody earlier – to a beautifully realized version of the Luiz Bonfá and Antônio Maria song “Black Orpheus”, otherwise known as “Manhã de Carnaval” or, in Sinatra’s version, “A Day In The Life Of A Fool”. The concert encore is “Little Abi”, written for Kikuchi’s daughter and, as Ethan Iverson writes in the liner notes, “celebrated as an important work in Japan ever since the first recording with Gene Perla and Elvin Jones many years before.”
Born 1939 in Tokyo, 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 confer in his post-Agharta retirement period, and he contributed to a still-unissued session with Miles, Larry Coryell and others, 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. Motian, in particular, encouraged Kikuchi’s experimental tendencies, and was pleased to feature Masabumi Kikuchi in his own groups.
Motian was also on hand for Kikuchi’s sole ECM studio album, Sunrise, as was bassist Thomas Morgan. All About Jazz described the album as “sparse, abstract and forged on the spur of the moment, but with a Zen-like beauty: atonal, sublime and powerful.” Jazziz noted the album’s emotional undercurrents: “For all its freedom and space, the music is filled with tension, as if Kikuchi were carrying some great burden through his search for enlightenment.”
The release of Sunrise in 2012 provided a context for Kikuchi to play in Japan again, where the music of Black Orpheus was recorded in October of that year, in the responsive acoustics of the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan Recital Hall, a space originally designed for chamber music.
Back in his New York loft, a home base since the 1970s, Masabumi Kikuchi continued to work on the music. He withdrew from public performance but, with ECM’s support, made numerous recordings at home, both of solo piano meditations and group improvisations with a circle of younger associates including Thomas Morgan, guitarist Todd Neufeld, and saxophonist Michaël Attias, who helped him in the quest for new shapes and forms in spontaneous music-making.