Masabumi Kikuchi Jazz Pianist Who Embraced Individualism, Dies at 75
By BEN RATLIFF
Masabumi Kikuchi, a Japanese jazz pianist known to New York audiences in his final decades for his highly idiosyncratic approach, often heard in his work with the drummer Paul Motian, died on Monday at a hospital in Manhasset, N.Y. He was 75.
The cause was a subdural hematoma, his daughter, Abi Kikuchi, said. He lived in Manhattan.
Conversant in many styles of jazz, Mr. Kikuchi recorded with major figures in both the United States and Japan, including the arranger Gil Evans, the drummer Elvin Jones, the saxophonist Joe Henderson and the trumpeter Terumasa Hino. But his power during his somewhat reclusive later years was less quantifiable in terms of specific style. His playing had a kind of cloistered originality, with long silences, and a keyboard touch that could be delicate or combative; he often sang or moaned as he unspooled his ideas.
Mr. Motian, who died in 2011, was one of the few bandleaders with whom Mr. Kikuchi worked from the 1990s onward. Although he played standards in Mr. Motian’s various groups, which he could do with extreme care (one of many examples is “If You Could See Me Now,” from Mr. Motian’s album “Live at the Village Vanguard Vol. 1” ), Mr. Kikuchi preferred a kind of highly sensitive and often provocative free improvisation, which he liked to describe as “floating.”
“I never felt virtuosic at all, in my life, even for a moment,” Mr. Kikuchi said in an interview in 2012 with The New York Times. “Because I don’t have any technique. So I have had to develop my own language.”
Mr. Kikuchi was born in Tokyo on Oct. 19, 1939. He and his family moved north to a rural area in Aizuwakamatsu, in Fukushima prefecture, after the firebombing of Tokyo in 1945. In addition to his daughter, Mr. Kikuchi is survived by a brother, Masaharu.
As a young musician, studying at an arts high school in Tokyo and buying secondhand records that he assumed had been left behind by American soldiers, Mr. Kikuchi was influenced by Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. During his early professional years in Japan, he recorded a series of popular bossa nova records with the saxophonist Sadao Watanabe. In 1969 he briefly attended Berklee College of Music in Boston; in 1974 he returned to the United States and moved to New York City.
His early recordings as a leader often followed the examples of McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea and the sound of Miles Davis’s electric period. He recorded a string of solo synthesizer records in the 1980s for Japanese labels. But after starting to work with Mr. Motian in 1990, he turned back to acoustic piano and his own imperatives.
Starting in the 2000s, Mr. Kikuchi released hardly any music commercially, yet recorded a great amount of it, alone and with others including the bassist Thomas Morgan and the guitarist Todd Neufeld, on professional equipment in his loft in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan — including, by his own count, more than 50 solo albums. In 2012 ECM released “Sunrise,” an acclaimed trio album with Mr. Motian and Mr. Morgan.
“He can’t, or won’t, contour his thinking or approach to fit somebody’s ideal,” the saxophonist Greg Osby, who recorded with Mr. Kikuchi several times, said in a 2012 interview. “You call him because you want what he offers.”
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