When drummer Paul Motian passed away last November, it inspired an outpouring of grief from jazz listeners and musicians. In the months since, a couple of Motian's last trio recordings have been posthumously released, including one by his favorite New York pianist Masabumi Kikuchi. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says Kikuchi and Motian were a perfect fit.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD: The death of a great musician ripples through the jazz community. It's a special loss to those improvisers we might call immediate survivors: working partners who'll miss that particular interaction with a singular musician. In his late phase, Paul Motian had reduced drumming to essences, or a mere suggestion - to a concentrated, rarefied level where an isolated rustle might bear all the weight, like a single brushstroke on a white canvas.

In the end, Motian personified the idea of the right minimal gesture. Pianist Masabumi Kikuchi's new trio album, "Sunrise" put him in like-minded company.


WHITEHEAD: Like Paul Motian, pianist Masabumi Kikuchi has his own anti-virtuoso thing going. He recently told an interviewer: I don't have any technique. And you know what he means. It's as if he's renounced it. Still, he showed some chops on records he made in Japan in the 1960s.


GROSS: But even back then he could be elliptical. Masabumi Kikuchi is a sort of outsider artist in jazz - an odd way to describe someone who's lived for decades within walking distance of the Village Vanguard, where he's often performed. Over that time, he's stripped all the frills from his playing.

WHITEHEAD: His improvised line can be exquisitely delicate, but then he'll despoil it, disturbing the calm surface, splattering the canvas. He's also the best and worst of pianists who sing along with themselves; his hazy voice is like a walkie-talkie transmission from the moon. It's too weird to dislike.


MASABUMI KIKUCHI: (Singing sounds)

WHITEHEAD: A pianist who makes unpredictable moves poses special challenges to a bass player. Some would try to guess where he's headed and meet him there, while others might play a fully independent part. Thomas Morgan - in recent years the bassist of choice for Motian, Kikuchi and many others - at times does something more challenging. He inserts his own notes into Kikuchi's line where he hears an opening, fusing piano and bass into one voice. Morgan might even finish the pianist's thought.


WHITEHEAD: The music on Masabumi Kikuchi's "Sunrise" was improvised from scratch, though sometimes the pianist seems to have a melody in mind. One piece sounds like he's riffing on his old boss Gil Evans' theme "La Nevada." These improvisations can be very beautiful even when they take bizarre turns. The players may pull up short just when they get a groove going, so even the endings might erupt out of nowhere.


GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is a jazz columnist for emusic.com and the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "Sunrise" by the Masabumi Kikuchi Trio on the ECM label. You can download Podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org and you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.