Masabumi Kikuchi: Black Orpheus

A recording of the final live solo performance of pianist-composer Masabumi Kikuchi (1939-2015), Black Orpheus vividly illustrates just how broad ranging the idea of “jazz” has become. This music was captured at Tokyo’s Bunka Kaikan Recital Hall in 2012, and Kikuchi’s visceral playing and cerebral ideas conjure sounds just as much at home alongside Glenn Gould and Erik Satie as they are next to Bill Evans and Cecil Taylor.

The bulk of Black Orpheus is given over to “Tokyo,” a mournful nine-part suite composed by Kikuchi, deceptively simple in some movements, thickly layered in others. “Part 1” finds Kikuchi’s unresolved phrases suspended over tension-fraught chasms of empty space, while in “Part II” the pianist’s fingers race one another to pack in as many coiled, splintered-arpeggio notions as possible. Kikuchi’s ever-present guttural grunting aptly underscores the hammer-blow block chords of “Part V”; the intro and outro of “Part VIII” take a far lighter, almost soothing approach to a similar chords-based attack. “Part IX” unites all of Kikuchi’s concepts, its elegiac, bittersweet pace offset by deftly placed atonal phrasings. This suite admittedly never feels like a through-composed work, but its vision of the titular city, Kikuchi’s birthplace, is indisputably clear.

Black Orpheus also offers Kikuchi’s rendering of “Manhã de Carnaval,” from Luiz Bonfá’s score for the classic Brazilian film that gives this album its title. The pianist strips an already melancholy tune near down to its bones, leaving plenty of air in the melody for contemplation and remembrance. The album closes with “Little Abi,” a tender ballad written by Kikuchi in tribute to his daughter. There is no way to know if Black Orpheus will be Kikuchi’s final posthumous release, but if it is, this track, with its plangent, unadorned warmth, would serve as a fitting coda to a remarkable career.

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