The final studio recording from Japanese pianist Masabumi Kikuchi, Hanamichi, is the second in a series of piano recordings I’ve received over the last couple of weeks that combine adventurous playing with stunning sound quality. (The first, Gregg Karukas’ deeply romantic Serenata, appeared earlier this week.) I’ve mentioned this recording in a couple of recent hardware reviews, especially the comparison between the new and old Bryston 4Bs, because it’s such a delicate and spacious recording. This is an intimate performance, an artist fused with his instrument and acting as one, and it served as a perfect tool for evaluating those subtle differences.
Masabumi Kikuchi recorded this at Klavierhaus in New York City in December 2013, and he passed away in July of 2015 at the age of 75. He once told the New York Times, “I don’t have any technique,” although he did have plenty of stylistic idiosyncrasies that remind me of Glenn Gould–the hunched posture, the impulsive vocalizations (which are most subtle than Gould or Keith Jarrett), the way he let his hands drop under the front of the keyboard so his fingers could wander in a crab crawl. Despite these unorthodox techniques, and they are techniques, he still caught the attention of Thelonious Monk back in the ’60s and has played with all sorts of legends such as McCoy Tyner, Paul Motian and especially Gary Peacock, who became a good friend to him over the years.
Hanamichi was recorded in just a couple of days. The piano was a beautiful vintage Steinway, and while he often complained about the level of his playing in later years this piano brought out something deep inside of Masabumi Kikuchi: “[It’s} a culmination–distilling what he’d learned and figured out along the long road he’d traveled.” Known affectionately as Poo, Kikuchi had a distinct way with his pedals, carefully coaxing out the notes, showing everyone that he not only understood multi-dimensional dynamics and sought those skills with others. (He met his match with Motian, also well-versed in that technique.)
The musical choices are sublime, of course, with an epic interpretation of Gershwin’s “Summertime” that travels enormous distances in just over 11 minutes, and two different versions of “My Favorite Things,” captured at different times during the recording sessions, under different circumstances and moods. At one point in Hanamichi, Masabuma Kikuchi improvises for just over five minutes, and the melodies are strikingly compact and fleshed out.
Fortunately these moments were captured with poise and sensitivity from producer Sun Chung, once with ECM, and now heading his own label of Red Hook Records. This is a thoroughly spellbinding solo piano performance, and it’s become part of my regular rotation for evaluating gear.