Masabumi Kikuchi’s Virtuosic Swan Song Hanamichi Is Worth A Listen

As jazz vinyl sees a great resurgence, new labels issuing archival material and recent recordings contribute to a now-overwhelming catalog of available records. Run by former ECM producer Sun Chung, Red Hook Records bills itself as “a place for encounters, where musicians have opportunities [to] carve new adventurous ways of creative wayfaring [and] dissolve musical boundaries.” Red Hook’s release focus and target audience remains unclear; not all jazz buyers are audiophiles, and not all audiophiles accept newer recordings. The label’s inaugural release is Hanamichi, an LP/CD/download (pick your format) of Japanese pianist Masabumi Kikuchi’s final studio recordings.

Influenced by Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington, Masabumi Kikuchi studied music at the Tokyo Arts College High School. Thanks to a string of successful bossa nova records with saxophonist Sadeo Watanabe, Kikuchi became one of Japan’s best-known jazz musicians: throughout his career, he played with Gil Evans, Elvin Jones, Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, Bill Laswell, Paul Motian, and even Miles Davis. The vast majority of his solo records or sessions as leader are out-of-print and unavailable in America; most accessible are his recordings in Motian’s trio and a couple late period ECM releases. In those later years, Kikuchi recorded a wealth of improvisational “floating sound and harmony,” though never released any of it. He told Ben Ratliff in 2012, “I never felt virtuosic at all, in my life, even for a moment. Because I don’t have technique. So I’ve had to develop my own language.”

Produced by Chung over two days at New York’s Klavierhaus piano store, Kikuchi recorded Hanamichi a year and a half before his 2015 death at age 75. The album’s liner notes describe Chung’s many failed attempts to record the pianist, who for these sessions returned to song-based playing. On Hanamichi, which includes both standards and original pieces, sustained silent passages follow each musical phrase, giving Kikuchi time to carefully consider each note. This approach works in some places though fails in others. His 11-minute “Summertime” rendition meanders too often for its own good, but the two takes of “My Favorite Things” aptly illustrate his improvisational abilities; the first recording emphasizes individual notes in faster sequences, while the second is slower and more chord-based (neither version circles back to the main melody). Listeners with great focus and a deep understanding of music theory will best appreciate Hanamichi’s details, as most others would relegate it to background music. Still, the album’s sound quality and sheer virtuosity make it worth a listen for anyone willing to spare the time.

The 180g vinyl, cut and pressed at Record Industry, is passable for its $20-25 price. Kikuchi’s piano sounds close-miked without much room ambience, and the digital recording sharpens some of the already shrill high notes. A/D converters have difficulty reproducing a piano’s nuanced textures and dynamics, though Hanamichi’s smart imaging of the keys makes up for the other sonic deficiencies. The LP itself is well-pressed with light surface noise (the music’s sparse nature highlights vinyl artifacts more than usual), though the package disappoints. Kevin Whitehead’s liner notes are poorly edited (too much passive voice writing and improper punctuation), and the generic graphic design severely underserves the record. While the musical choice is respectable, to remain viable in this crowded industry Red Hook Records could make some significant improvements.

(Malachi Lui is an AnalogPlanet contributing editor and avid record collector. He now returns to the site after an eight-month hiatus. Follow him on Twitter: @MalachiLui and Instagram: @malachi__lui)

Tom L's picture

to read a thoughtful review that makes good points, both positive and negative, about a recording instead of just going overboard one way or another.
Welcome back, Malachi!

Michael Fremer's picture
Second your welcome back!
Xmilio's picture

Welcome back Malachi! You were sorely missed! I tend to connect with your taste in music more than the other contributors (no offense guys!).

kairos's picture

Yes, very happy to see Malachi back. Keep 'em coming.

Thanks for the review. I love Masabumi Kikuchi and his contemporaries. It's a bummer this isn't a better outing and recording but I appreciate the straightforward tone of the review. Luckily, there are a lot of great records of his.

Wickedexile's picture

Hope all is well for you Malachi.
It is disappointing to finally receive such a wonderfully composed review of an under par release.
I would hope that you could have graced us with an initial gem that you uncovered during your hiatus.
Quality reviews that align with our audiophile sensibilities are so paltry that we hunger for the treasures.

Grx8's picture

Back Maluchi.
Grammar IS important.
It is true abour A/D converters, but I wouldn’t generalize.