Six revelatory tracks by the late Japanese pianist Masabumi Kikuchi are featured on Hanamichi, the debut release by Red Hook Records, due out April 16, 2021, in digital, LP, and CD formats. Recorded over a two-day New York session on a magnificent Steinway, the music marks a divergence from the mostly free improvising Poo (Kikuchi’s nickname), who died at age 75 in 2015, practiced during his final years. Kikuchi’s radiant playing sparkles with melodic exploration and expression in renditions of lesser-known tunes and popular standards.
As Kevin Whitehead writes in these excerpts from the album’s liner notes:
“I don’t have any technique,” Kikuchi protested to the New York Times’ Ben Ratliff, a year and a half before recording Hanamichi. More accurate to say he’d developed his own. He played with fingers curved, hands moving crablike or poised banana- bunched. Sometimes his palms drooped below the keyboard, and sometimes he played with hands crossed or overlapping. You can hear the resultant sonic knots on “Improvisation” and the first “My Favorite Things”: churnings from which instant melodies suddenly arise.
For Hanamichi, producer Sun Chung nudged him toward playing tunes, in addition to his free improvisations. That proved to be a good idea. Poo didn’t bring music or a setlist, calling selections in the moment. One is a personal standard, a staple of his sets since 1970, the ballad for his daughter “Little Abi.”
You can measure how radically Kikuchi transforms Mabel Wayne’s brisk Spanish waltz “Ramona” by the seven-second gap between the first and second notes of the melody once he finally gets around to it. Languid tempo lets him build, and the final melody statement in a new key is freighted with accumulated feeling. That tempo lets us hear Kikuchi’s command of pedaling and of overtones at the margins: the high thin sheen of ringing harmonics that persists through changing chords.
While some pianists who ride sustain pedal overplay, Kikuchi pares back, choosing notes with extra care for clarity. Humming piano harp is a shifting backdrop to present action, not a heavy curtain descending on it. Kikuchi’s “Summertime” announces the melody with playfully ambiguous barroom tremolos and distorts the graceful timing of Gershwin’s internal cadences. All those dynamics he minds are on display: piano rings in many ways, across the registers — another zone of dynamic variation. In the performance’s back half, an overflight of chattering birds/dissolving high chords unhatches Poo’s eerie buzzard voice. Other pianists sing along with their right hands; Kikuchi’s keening would beam in from beyond, an independent voice. On Hanamichi, his utterances are few and surprisingly on point, intensifying musical effect.
Two radically different “My Favorite Things” confirm Hanamichi’s improvisatory spontaneity: two days, two perspectives. Taking his time on the longer take, Kikuchi finds implications in the melody and harmony that skirling modal versions gloss over. As on “Abi” he strikes hammered-anvil chords, dynamic alloys of timbre, harmony and attack. They signify, and remind us, that Masabumi Kikuchi’s piano music is not about rippling over the keys but making the instrument sound.
Recorded: December 2013, Klavierhaus, New York
Engineer: Rick Kwan
Mastering: Alex Bonney
All photos: Tae Cimarosti
Design: Sofia Zankl
Produced by Sun Chung