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Masabumi Kikuchi Trio: Sunrise

John Kelman By

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With a surprising number of recordings coming out that represent some of drummer Paul Motian's final work before passing unexpectedly in the fall of 2011, few have created as deeply personal a tribute as the liner notes to Japanese pianist Masabumi Kikuchi's Sunrise. "Suddenly Paul was gone. He left without warning," Kikuchi writes, as he recounts his first meeting with Motian, the time they shared together in the Tethered Moon trio—which, with bassist Gary Peacock, released three albums between 1993 and 2004—through to a last visit to the hospital a week before the drummer passed. Sunrise was recorded a full two years before Motian's death, but in its angular yet strangely rounded and beveled surfaces—and liberated quietude—it may well be the closest of these last releases to truly articulating what Motian was all about.

With ten spontaneous compositions running just over fifty minutes, Sunrise explores the farther reaches of free improvisation. With its emphasis on close listening, this calmer, Zen-like approach favors substance over style, significance over pyrotechnics, and space over density. All this means that as the title track gradually coalesces, beginning with bassist Thomas Morgan alone, but quickly joined by Motian—as ever, choosing texture over tempo—its ultimate destination was, no doubt, as much a surprise to those who made it as it is for those fortunate enough to experience it.

The three "ballad" pieces that open, close, and divide the album in two are not just ethereally lyrical. They're remarkable for their ability of everyone to both lead and follow; harmonic movement takes place with Kikuchi, Morgan and Motian joined at the hips, making it all the more surprising that there was no preconception, no rehearsal, no forethought. Even when the trio moves to more oblique territory on "Last Ballad," there's a depth of interaction that's profound in its unfailing simpatico. Motian's subtle ebb-and-flow acts as a constant foil to Kikuchi, whose delicate touch feels, at times, like raindrops on a window, notes flowing with similar unpredictably yet with their own internal pulse. Morgan's careful choices may seem simple in their sparsity, but require a honed ability to listen and intuit, with the kind of instrumental command that can almost anticipate change before it occurs.

Like label mate Keith Jarrett, Kikuchi's groaning vocalizations can take a little getting used to, but as the pianist channels what he hears into his hands, they become a synchronous part of the experience. There may be times when less of his voice might seem to be a good thing, but in the final analysis his music wouldn't sound the same without it. Kikuchi, Morgan and Motian may travel to strange and unusual places, where abstruse ideas gently skew on their sides and melodies are twisted beyond convention, but even at its most oblique, Sunrise reveals unexpected and unusual beauty—an equally appropriate description and ultimate homage for Motian, who never lived his life on anybody's terms but his own, with a resultant musical legacy that's all the more significant for it.

Track Listing: Ballad I; New Day; Short Stuff; So What Variations; Ballad II; Sunrise; Sticks and Cymbals; End of Day; Uptempo; Last Ballad.

Personnel: Masabumi Kikuchi: piano; Thomas Morgan: bass; Paul Motian: drums.

Title: Sunrise | Year Released: 2012 | Record Label: ECM Records


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