Masabumi Kikuchi: A Pianist Named 'Poo' : A Blog Supreme Masabumi Kikuchi makes highly abstract music, yet is seeing the spotlight at age 72 — again.
NPR logo A Pianist Named 'Poo'

A Pianist Named 'Poo'

Almost all of pianist Masabumi Kikuchi's work is out-of-print or available only in his native Japan. But there is much of it, including a new trio album called Sunrise. "It is the first album under Mr. Kikuchi's own name that an American listener can find easily," as Ben Ratliff observed in a fascinating recent profile in The New York Times. Indeed, Kikuchi is releasing this album (recorded in 2009) at the age of 72.

The documentary short above focuses on the New-York-based pianist known to most as "Poo." (A language advisory is pertinent: There is mild profanity.) The video is not linked to the new record, but it does shed some light on the distinct, abstract aesthetic of the album.

An old publicity photograph of Masabumi Kikuchi. Columbia Records/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Columbia Records/Courtesy of the artist

An old publicity photograph of Masabumi Kikuchi.

Columbia Records/Courtesy of the artist

As the documentary mentions, Kikuchi has proven capable of operating under more familiar terms: He has made several albums with standards and American songbook tunes, and his discography attests to collaborations with Gil Evans, Joe Henderson, Elvin Jones and other jazz giants. The late drummer Paul Motian was a frequent collaborator, and Motian is on this album too.

But Sunrise is an album of "free" collective improvisations, which is a concept of group interaction Kikuchi has been obsessed with lately. He has been jamming a lot with younger musicians like bassist Thomas Morgan, who is on the new album, and guitarist Todd Neufeld. Both are seen in the documentary. To quote from Poo's liner notes:

Together we're trying to find new possibilities in ensemble improvisation. These guys are young and smart and they catch on incredibly quickly, and we already share a kind of method whenever we play together. But I'm reluctant to use that term, because what we're trying to destroy is a method too — one that's brought us up to this point in time.

So I've been looking around for a better word ...

Here's a musician in his early seventies who's been around the block. Now he's exploring a post-idiomatic way of playing, with evident glee that would make a cynical listener wonder if he's gone off the deep end. It seems like a rather unmarketable combination, yet it's resulted in an album for ECM Records, one of the few remaining jazz labels with the support of a major record company.

As a coda, it might be mentioned that this career silhouette resembles that of drummer Billy Hart, who, at 71, will release his own new, free-floating ECM album tomorrow with bandmates several generations younger than he is. (All Our Reasons is the title.) But more on Billy Hart later.