You wouldn’t guess, from the distilled elegance enclosed here, that the pianist was sick, unsure of himself, so weary in body and mind that he slept two hours in the middle of one session. You also wouldn’t guess that “hanamichi” refers to a raised walkway in kabuki theater, allowing the performers to stride through the audience. Masabumi Kikuchi, or “Poo” to friends, sounds like he’s playing for himself first, anyone else very much second. But he satisfied himself. For one of the few times, this man who demanded so much of himself got what he wanted, out through his fingers and onto tape.
Cut around Christmas 2013, about a year and a half before Kikuchi’s death at 75, these solo piano cuts feature less abstraction from a theme than many of his other recordings. Instead, there’s a subtle shifting of elements within a given standard melody. If I play standards, he once told friend and collaborator Paul Motian, I can no longer play them in any standard manner; I have to have the freedom to play them my way. And Motian, who’d undergone the same revelation years earlier, nodded sagely. That revelation set the stage for this late stage.
So the standards here come out full of space and silence, like Monk, but posing different riddles, and letting the silence suggest different answers. Sometimes the space between notes suggests a celestial jukebox running down, easing into the entropy of the universe. I don’t know what words the man would use to describe his own becoming, his own quiet success. But Hanamichi marked private accomplishment and, eventually, a kind of public one. A player on the stage, a final bow—modest—before lights go out, and come up.