When you first hear the drummer in the right channel, whispering then falling silent then stirring again, you know it’s Paul Motian and it hurts to feel his absence from the world. Sunrise, by pianist Masabumi Kikuchi with Thomas Morgan on bass, was one of Motian’s last recordings before his death in November 2011.
In the press notes, Kikuchi says, “Lately when I sit down at the piano I do not prepare what I will play nor do I think about how to play, and I believe I found … something new.” The 10 tracks here are group improvisations. There are three called ballads (the opening “Ballad 1,” “Ballad 2” in the middle and the concluding “Last Ballad”), almost stationary pools of thought or mood around which the other tracks flow. Most of Sunrise is rapt and insular and extraordinarily patient. Some material, like “Short Stuff” and “So What Variations,” is more animated. But the harder pieces might meander into silence, as the ballads might suddenly spike. Transitions in this music are unexplained.
Motian and Morgan are ideal collaborators for Kikuchi. They surround his fragmentary piano gestures with intuitive, flickering intelligence and flattering light. But Kikuchi’s search for “something new” rarely comes upon anything aesthetically significant or emotionally compelling. His cold constellations of notes and random patterns are neither beautiful in themselves nor revealing in their juxtapositions. The music is not ugly; it is just plain. Kikuchi’s faith in the moment is clearly sincere. But the irregular shapes of the title track do not suggest dawn. Kikuchi’s discoveries seem incapable of being shared. “End of Day,” with its scurryings, could be anytime, anywhere.
One qualifier to the earlier statement that the music is not ugly: Kikuchi’s intermittent gargling, croaking vocalizations are unattractive but, fortunately, off-mike.