Of the albums pianist Masabumi Kikuchi released as a leader or participated in as a sideman, few, if any, are as personal and revelatory as Black Orpheus. Recorded solo at the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan Recital Hall in 2012, it was his final such outing. In his liner notes, pianist Ethan Iverson -- who admits he was not initially convinced of Kikuchi's gifts -- states that, "The best of Masabumi has extraordinary vulnerability and corresponding extraordinary magic." Kikuchi was an outsider artist, determined to follow his own way no matter the cost. And he did. Black Orpheus reveals that Kikuchi's iconoclastic path may have been worth it. Displayed here, the concert unfolds almost continuously as a series of improvisations. They reveal that Kikuchi's fierce dedication to discovering his own voice on the piano was a rigorous, almost ascetic practice. That evening, Kikuchi had an instructional reminder taped to his piano: "Play slower. I sound better when I play slower." Beginning with "Tokyo, Pt. 1," we hear the culmination of a lifetime of concentration in developing a slavish devotion to hearing and playing the right note at the right time with correct force and timbre. The show is a determined renunciation of influences and statement of self-discovery. Nothing is rushed. His self-imposed restraint creates space and openness around an ever unfolding musical journey; one that moves beyond any self-imposed boundary. While that first part employs more single notes than chord voicings. "Tokyo, Pt. 2" uses slightly angular sonorities of note clusters, percussive pedal pushes, the sounds of his feet moving against the floor, and breathing, as they contrast with middle-register arpeggios. Together they are an ascendant reach for balance and perfection. The beauty in "Pt. 3" is so halting through its first two-thirds that, when he introduces circular phrasing in a harmonic discovery, the listener is startled. The album's centerpiece is a staggering, intimate deconstruction and remarkable revisioning -- note by note, tone by tone -- of the title theme ("Manhã de Carnaval: Theme from Black Orpheus") by Luiz Bonfa. Kikuchi finds not only the haunted romance that lies at the tune's heart, but also mysterious metaphysics. He cracks the surface for transformation and poses the possibility of intent underneath what is known. "Tokyo, Pt. 9" is quietly processional, but offers a nearly inscrutable devotion to in-the-moment discovery that results not in resolution, but realization. The album-closer, "Little Abi," is a composition for his daughter he had recorded 40 years before with Elvin Jones. The lithe swing and song-like whimsy in the original have been replaced by a skeletal lyric line. The intent is one of reflection and pure, devoted tenderness. The process of placement and the choral statements are more open to question than statement and resolution; they're poignant, emotionally resonant. His nearly inscrutable devotion to in-the-moment perception results in realization. This album is not an epitaph for Kikuchi, but an entryway.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek