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Masabumi Kikuchi — Hanamichi
(Red Hook RH1001, 2013/2022, CD / LP / DL)

by Jon Davis, Published 2022-09-29

Hanamichi Cover art

During the 70s, there was a lot of outstanding jazz being recorded in Japan, and Masabumi Kikuchi was at the forefront, taking the various streams of post-bebop jazz and combining them in various ways. In addition to acoustic groups based around his piano, he dabbled in electric piano and other keyboards, as many players were doing at the time. Several of his sessions as a leader, starting with Poo-Sun in 1970, have come to be regarded as classics, some of which ventured into a style similar to Miles Davis in his electric work. He also recorded a number of solo piano albums, though I’m not familiar with them. Kikuchi died in 2015 at the age of 75, and Hanamichi was his last recorded studio session. The six tracks feature him in a mostly introspective mood, though not lacking in energy, as he takes on three standards and two of his own pieces, one of which is labeled “Improvisation.” “Ramona” starts things off in a lyrical mode, taking a very old tune (almost 100 years now) and extending its harmonies almost beyond recognition. He drifts freely from wistful hints of the melody to improvised polyphonic countermelodies to more traditional accompaniment, and most listeners would be hard pressed to recognize the source material. “Summertime” has been done so many ways by so many musicians that another version may seem surplus to requirements, but in Kikuchi’s hands, it takes on a new life, still identifiable once he’s past an introductory mood-setting. His variations and embellishments are quite original, unlike any other pianist I can think of, encompassing both dense harmonies and exposed simple lines at different times. “My Favorite Things” gets two readings, and in the first, a brief statement of the theme leads into a dense swirl of independent lines that sound almost as if more than one person is involved. The second is mostly quite quiet, softly probing at the song’s harmonic implications and only returning to recognizable material to wrap up. The set finishes with “Improvisation” and “Little Abi,” which illustrate Kikuchi’s art more purely. This music doesn’t really fit in with what is commonly labeled “jazz,” being devoid of any remnants of blues or standard harmonies. It’s less chaotic than Cecil Taylor, with polyphonic lines emerging from what sometimes seem like random flurries. Satoko Fujii plays like this sometimes, though of course Kikuchi has been at it a lot longer. I’m not sure how fans of jazz piano will react to this playing, as it’s pretty far removed from most “traditional” players. It remains beautiful and challenging throughout, and provides a meditative coda to a noteworthy career.

Filed under: New releases, 2022 releases, 2013 recordings

Related artist(s): Masabumi Kikuchi

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