The recent passing of legendary jazz drummer Paul Motian is inadvertently shaping up to be the bittersweet focal point for pianist Masabumi Kikuchi’s Sunrise – bitter because the world has lost a valuable musician and sweet because he got to leave his mark on a handful of recordings just before his illnesses overtook him. Kikuchi and Motian have a long history together, including their band Tethered Moon featuring Gary Peacock on bass, and every track on Sunrise is co-written by all three band members – with Thomas Morgan on bass – so this isn’t really an opportunistic attempt to bolster an album’s profile by landing an elderly special guest star. Kikuchi and Motian can read each other like books. This being Sunrise‘s main attribute becomes a double edge sword since the understanding that they share produces music that only slightly registers to passive or active listeners.
Japan is a country full of adventurous jazz and Masabumi Kikuchi’s early career stirred into the mix effectively with the use of synthesizers and the influence of atonal classical music he allowed into his signature style. As time went on, Kikuchi began to revert back to the acoustic piano, but his attitude remained musically liberal. Hell, the liner notes of Sunrise finds him stating that he and his trio are out to destroy a “method.” But if there is anything being destroyed here, it’s on a microscopic level. The challenges are buried so deeply that multiple listens may only lead to light surface scratching. The trio moves as a collective blob, going neither forward nor backward but just sort of sneaking around the corners. Tempo and dynamics are not explored in any innovative way and no one grabs for a solo spot. There is a moment where Kikuchi becomes more dangerous on “Say What Variations” (there is no source out there leading me to believe this is based on the infamous Miles tune – but Kikuchi and Davis were acquaintances), a thorny stumble through über-modern jazz that sounds more like a string of unconnected mistakes than anything with a recognizable shape.
It’s worth mentioning, especially if you plan on making a full price purchase of Sunrise, that Masabumi Kikuchi has a wordless vocalization style that makes Keith Jarrett’s grunts and groans sound like a mockingbird by comparison. When he really gets going with a right hand piano melody, he sounds like a flock of ducks or a Peter Griffin laugh. I hesitate to call it a distraction since such a word can undermine the more significant efforts behind the music. But I honestly don’t know what else to call it.
The remainder of Sunrise is oddly bashful. There is little use in mentioning song titles because, with the exception of “So What Variations”, so many of the tracks appear to be cut from the same tree. The combined histories of Masabumi Kikuchi and Paul Motian add up to numerous post-bop plunges, qualifying for something far more than just “auspicious.” So why is it so even-keel? Maybe Kikuchi and Motian’s telepathy has unconsciously stripped itself down to the essential elements of music making. Or perhaps in the golden years, there’s not much left to skew (Kikuchi is 72, Motian died at the age of 80). Whatever the reason for the results, Sunrise comes recommended only for those who are very willing to labour for a sense of musical appreciation.