By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Pianist and keyboardist Masabumi Kikuchi, aka Poo Sun, aka Poo, was born in Tokyo in 1939 and died in Manhasset, N.Y. in 2015. History, the source in this case being Wikipedia and AllMusic, don’t seem to say how he acquired his nicknames, although he did entitle one of his solo albums “Poo-Sun.” This is only one (or two) of many mysteries surrounding the man and his music.
The pianist won a spot in Lionel Hampton’s band while only in his early 20s, and went on to play with such Western jazz luminaries as saxophonist Sonny Rollins, pianist Mal Waldron, drummer Elvin Jones, and bassist Gary Peacock, who became a close friend and supporter (and who taught jazz for many years at Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts). Over the years, Kikuchi deployed electronic keyboards and a wide range of instruments. But in the last few years, he went back to piano and stuck to that.
“Black Orpheus,” an ECM recording from the concert Kikuchi taped in Tokyo not long before his death, consists of solo piano improvisations. The pianist had only one guide, one rule, before hitting the keys: A note taped near the keyboard reading, “Play slower. I sound better when I play slower.”
And he played mostly slower, although he understood the dictum that the first law of all art is contrast.
So along with slow sections, he threw in contrasts between chords, dying away to silence, and rapid runs. He let the pieces build along their own internal logic, and at this point in his artistry, he did not much care about accessibility, or any preconceptions about his work. He poured in energy and passion, when those spirits seized him. But he let notes, and chords, die away until you can almost hear the stage, and the audience, pushing in, without sound, to fill that space he left. And he moaned, too, along with his own piano lines, communing with himself, leaving distinct, sometimes annoying, but impossible-to-remove counterpoints.
By this point, Kikuchi was having trouble getting work, largely because he could not or would not conform to what anyone else wanted to hear. With Peacock, drummer Paul Motian, and sometimes others, he’d turn standards inside out onstage and in the studio, laying aside the familiar melodies, then the familiar chord changes, then the generally-agreed upon substitute chord changes. Standards as non-standard as a few men working together could make them.
Then, with a final flourish, a final creative step, he tossed aside all connection to what came before.
Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.