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Music Review: Masabumi Kikuchi Trio – Sunrise

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“Suddenly Paul was gone. He left us without warning…,” says Masabumi Kikuchi in the liner notes to his Trio’s new recording, Sunrise. The Masabumi Kikuchi Trio consists of Masabumi (piano), Thomas Morgan (double bass) and Paul Motian (drums). Motian passed in 2011, and the 10 tracks of Sunrise (recorded in 2009) represent some of the last studio recordings of his stellar career.

In a trio format, there is no place to hide, and the three musicians show a remarkable empathy for each other. The piano of Kikuchi leads the music, and he is supported with the ineffable playing of Motian and Morgan. Although Masabumi Kikuchi’s name may not be immediately familiar to many, he has been playing with heavyweights for decades.

He was born in 1939 in Tokyo, and began playing with the likes of Lionel Hampton and Sonny Rollins while still a teenager. In the ’70s he collaborated with Gil Evans and Elvin Jones, and led his own groups. One of the more curious artifacts from this time is a recording he made with Miles Davis in 1978, which remains tantalizingly unreleased. In the ’80s Kikuchi worked with synthesizers, but by the ’90s he had returned to the piano.

It is as a piano-led trio that Sunrise was recorded. Motian and Morgan provide the perfect back-up for Kikuchi’s piano excursions. Although there are a couple of tracks in which the bassist and drummer are afforded opportunities to stretch out, for the most part their role is a supporting one.

The overall mood is well-defined right from the top with “Ballad I.” The trio’s interactions are extraordinarily tight, and Kikuchi’s piano tones refract some fascinating colors of tone. “Ballad II,“ and “Last Ballad” maintain this low-key tempo, while the music remains as intriguing as ever. Although I am not very familiar with Masabumi’s earlier works, on Sunrise much of his playing can best be described as somewhat abstract. While he never gets completely atonal, his solos do veer off in unexpected directions at times.

One track that shows off Motian’s talents particularly well is “Short Stuff.” It begins with a bit of a drum solo, then Morgan and Kikuchi come in. There is a magical feeling when one listens to the way the piano and drums feed off each other over the course of this song. Another great Motian moment comes during the closing of “Uptempo,” where his irrepressible spirit is fully on display.

The aforementioned “Last Ballad” closes Sunrise out, in much the same manner as “Ballad I” opened it. The tempo remains low-key, and the way that the players interact is almost telepathic. Masabumi Kikuchi has a very unique way of playing the piano, which his trio react amazingly well too. Sunrise is a great record, and it also functions as a fine epitaph for the incredible talents of Paul Motian, who indeed left us far too early.

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