Interview with Masabumi Kikuchi
Some of my favorite live music experiences of the last 15 years were Paul Motian gigs at the Vanguard with Masabumi Kikuchi on piano.
John Rogers, who supplied the rare photos that accompany this post, helped me get in touch with Masabumi after Motian's death. I studied with Masabumi a little bit last year and it was very helpful. At this point he is an influence on my own playing.
The following was taped in summer 2012. Thanks to Trevor Hudson for the transcription.
Masabumi Kikuchi: The B-29 came over twice to Tokyo. The first one was daytime I think...so we ran away. And then the second time about a couple weeks later they came during night time. It was so scary, so terrible... they dropped napalm bombs and it was burning everywhere. I ran away by myself and couldn’t find my parents. The next day everything was burning as far as you could see. We were all pretty far from Ginza but we could still see it because everything was all burned; you could see through the burned fields and destroyed buildings. And everyone had to wait in long lines for some rice soup. Later, there was no rice, only soup.
Ethan Iverson: How old were you?
MK: Four? Then we heard they bombed Hiroshima with some kind of new type of bomb and that it was very dangerous, so we moved to Northern Japan where my parents were born. My father was a painter, but he couldn’t make money with painting anymore so he started out making charcoal tar which was used to burn wood. I was having a great time in the mountains!
MK: My father set up a nice area in the mountains to collect fresh drinking water. My mother would stay at home. And he made a little sleeping lodge for us. It was really nice. I think it took him about two years to make it livable. I had two brothers. One a year older and the other three years younger.
EI: So three boys.
MK: Three boys. But the younger one died. He was a really gifted musician.
EI: What did he play?
MK: He was a piano player. He started taking sleeping pills in very early days so his mind was fucked up. But he was so gifted, compared to me.
EI: You think he was a better piano player?
MK: I think so because I learned it from him!
EI: He was a year younger than you?
MK: Three years younger!
EI: But you learned piano from him?
MK: I was into Monk for a while, but then I listened to my brother and he was kind of picking up the touch. So I said, "Ah, okay." He was in my band! Sometimes he played organ.
EI: What was the first jazz you were hearing then?
MK: I think it was Thelonious… it was right around when World War II was ending. When American soldiers went home they would try to sell their LP records. And it was pretty expensive in those days. I think the first one I bought was Miles Davis' Porgy and Bess. It was blowing my mind. And then Thelonious Monk's Misterioso. It's amazing, no?
EI: So you think those records were left behind by the American Soldiers?
MK: Yeah, though I think I ordered Thelonious Monk's Misterioso. I think I still have them somewhere. I have a lot of good record collections. Thelonious Monk was my first idol.
EI: Did you like Johnny Griffin on it too?
MK: No, not much. I thought that he played too much. When he got going on a hot streak it was amazing, but...
EI: That's what I always felt too. He always sounded great, of course, but it was too much in a way.
MK: Yeah…I think Coltrane was the best for Monk. He hears Monk.
EI: You preferred him to Charlie Rouse?
MK: Charlie Rouse was okay but no really bright moments, right? He's still good, probably the best among the best but…
EI: John Coltrane, huh?
MK: Yeah! Johnny Griffin and then John Coltrane came in and he was awesome!
EI: Did you see Coltrane live when he played in Japan?
MK: Yeah, I did! There was this place called the Video Hall. I think it belongs to Radio City. It's a pretty big hall probably around 700 people. They have like jam sessions all the time.
One time I went there and there was Coltrane, Jimmy Garrison, Rashied Ali and Alice Coltrane. I was in the bathroom of the backstage, it was a huge bathroom. Everything was big. So then 'Trane came in and he started blowing! I was just sitting there listening to him. That was such an experience. Nobody there. Huge, almost the same size as this loft and here was this blowing coming from one end of the building to the other. I don't even know how many notes he played!
EI: A lot of notes?
MK: Yeah….a kind of shock, right? At the concert, Alice sounded very good. Fresh.
EI: I always loved hearing Alice play with Coltrane.
MK: I went to Berklee when I was 29. And I didn't like it. Except for Herb Pomeroy. He was a good teacher. I learned a lot from him but I didn't like anybody else.
EI: What did Pomeroy teach you?
MK: It was in his arranging class. I skipped around six or seven semesters to be in his class. I learned a lot from him. It was his logic. Yeah, it's called Line Writing. Harmonize the sound not only with the notes of chord there, instead care for dynamics of the sound. And as a result of doing it, the sound of music got some different perspective. And I realized I was influenced a lot from what he tried to tell those young students. But I don't know how many students got what Herb really meant. He was really a sharp and great teacher. I miss him, too. So it was not only just technical tiny little promises. He liked to be true and I learned a lot from his playing. Yeah, he was a great teacher.
In '69 I was at the Jazz Workshop on Boylston Street for Miles Davis and I think Wayne Shorter, Tony, Dave Holland and Chick Corea. Chick's first job with Miles I think. I talked to him a bit. He was still a kid. But after that I didn't like so much where he went with his career. When he was young I liked him a lot! When he was not that afraid of challenging things. But after he got famous he changed. I don't like that kind of music. It's too organized. Reminds me of high-class cocktail music.
EI: Who else did you check out when young? Red Garland and Wynton Kelly?
MK: Yeah. Most people kind of liked Wynton Kelly a bit more than Red Garland. As for me, I liked Red Garland. It's impossible or almost impossible to play the piano like him, if you don't know the piano well. His playing taught me a lot about how to play the piano. Things like phrasing among other things. He was a boxer, I think that influenced his approach.
EI: He's got those notes in the middle, those dissonant notes in his chords, right?
MK: Yeah. Everything in his playing shows how every note has some kind of meaning…a very special meaning, you know? So Red Garland had a big influence on my piano playing. A touch of being more beautiful, not to just be stronger. I understand why Miles hired him.
EI: Coltrane loved him too. He was on a lot of Coltrane's records.
MK: I think he's a master of playing the background for melody players. He has a special gift I think.
EI: I think so too. I also prefer Red over Wynton Kelly although a lot of people like Wynton Kelly more.
MK: Yeah…Wynton Kelly is very catchy right?
EI: Yeah, very slick.
MK: Slick! I like him. But Red Garland is more like a piano master, right?
EI: I agree, yeah. Well then what about McCoy Tyner?
MK: I like his beginning stuff a lot. But after that it's too much for me.
EI: I think there's a line from Red Garland to McCoy Tyner in some kind of way.
MK: Yeah, but only with early McCoy.
EI: On your record with Elvin Jones, Hollow Out, you sound a lot like McCoy Tyner.
MK: Oh yeah? 'Cause I was probably into it and I could kinda play like him perhaps. But at some point I got tired of following those people, you know? So I said, "Forget that now."
Paul Bley was the one who may have made me think that way. You know because he found his own way. So I said, "Okay, I'm going to over and find my own way too on the piano."
EI: Which Bley did you hear? Did you hear stuff from the '60s?
MK: What was the one he did with Steve Swallow and Pete La Roca?
MK: Footloose! Yeah… that's the first one I heard somewhere. And I listened to the solo one, Open to Love, too. I met Paul Bley in Japan, when he was playing for Sonny Rollins, with Henry Grimes, and Roy McCurdy, also with a young trumpet player called Reshid Kmai Ali. They were playing in a hotel for three nights and I went every night. Much later, I went every night when he was at Sweet Basil with Gary Peacock and Jimmy Giuffre. It was awesome!
EI: Well, he's one of the greatest of course!
MK: I know. Even his personal life! His style you know? I can't follow it…it's impossible…it's amazing.
EI: I'd love to ask you about some other piano players.
EI: How about Herbie Hancock? Did you listen to Herbie Hancock?
MK: I've never been interested. When he joined Miles I thought he was cool but then he started his kind of…you know you don't have to think about how your fingers go. When he was really young and before he joined Miles I liked him! But after Miles he built up his own style and it's so boring. It's amazing, you know! But there's no room for me to get interested or into it. Too slick.
EI: What about Andrew Hill?
MK: Oh I love him! He was one of my heroes. I was the producer for one of his records, Hommage? David Baker was engineer. I edited a lot of that record.
EI: I gotta hear that! I don't think I’ve seen it.
MK: I think you can buy it somewhere but I don't have it.
EI: Alright. So did you hear Andrew in the 60s, the Blue Note records, or what did you hear?
MK: Oh yeah!! And Black Fire is one of my favorites.
EI: Yeah, mine too.
MK: Yeah, it's amazing. Did you know the way he lived in Brooklyn? Alfred Lion gave him a lot of money. So he bought a flour mill factory.
EI: A flour mill factory…? Andrew Hill bought one?
MK: It used to be on the riverside of Brooklyn so he bought it.
MK: Yeah. It's a three story building. He was living with a long time wife who played the Hammond organ. They lived there. There's just one floor but it's like a factory floor. They lived there quite a while. After a while they went to San Francisco or something I think. I like him. He was so pure and sensitive.
EI: What about that Jaki Byard, did you hear him much?
MK: I saw him with Mingus and heard his records. He was on another level: He could do any style, right? He was awesome. He was in the Village a lot before he went back up to Boston.
I loved Charles Mingus! He's one of those guys that helped me a lot. When he came to Japan he hired me. It was a strange concert.
EI: Who was on it?
MK: Bobby Jones.... And the other musicians weren't even good enough to remember. But Mingus was a strange guy! He wouldn't stop rehearsal! He loves rehearsal. Once we were in northern city in Japan a promoter came and asks him to stop because they had to get the audience in and he says, "Let them in!" and kept rehearsing. He's wild…when he starts playing the bass it's amazing… I played at the club at University Place, Bradley's? Everyday Mingus came to have dinner there when I was playing gigs with Gene Perla. Bradley liked me, and Mingus is the one that got me a green card.
EI: Tell me about Elvin. How did that relationship get started?
MK: I think he was busted in Japan. He still had to make a living somehow and the Japanese legal system gave him a break and let him work. I was the piano player for him so I retried it again as kind of "Japanese All-Star" and Elvin. That's when he met Keiko. I was lucky enough to play with Elvin and Jimmy Garrison, at the Vanguard.
EI: Jimmy was in the band too?
MK: Yeah! Occasionally he came back to play because everybody loved him. And it was amazing, those two! I loved to listen to them. I didn't hear any necessity for me to play there at all so I was just listening and Elvin would start screaming, "Ki-ku-chi-, play!" It was such an experience. Like a locomotive, right? What kind of dynamism they have when they're around!
MK: That kind of energy he has. Jimmy always holding the bottom so they are kind of a perfect combination. But I couldn't deal with the business side. I couldn't do that. So I had to leave the group. Yeah, Elvin gave me a kind of a rolling groove. Everything is rolling. I really appreciate that they gave me the chance to play and opportunity to open up my ears. Yeah, I am very fortunate. I don't know why because I was not a nice boy, I quit Elvin's band about 3 times!
EI: [Laughs] Well, it probably made him respect you! It's like, "Ok, this guy will actually quit on me. I better keep hiring him!"
MK: You know those big name guys…they're really good.
EI: They live up to their reputation?
MK: Yeah…even more than their reputation. Bigger. They went through trials to earn it. I was very fortunate for that right? Not many young guys could have that, especially these days. I was very very lucky.
EI: Tell me about your relationship to Toru Takemitsu.
MK: He wrote the score for this famous new wave director’s first movie. Takemistu wanted a jazz piano player whose name was Masao Yagi who turned out to be my first teacher when I was 19 I think. He was busted for dope. He pretended he was sicker than he was with asthma so he could stay in the hospital and get paperwork for drugs. So he couldn't make the movie.
I was the replacement for Masao Yagi. And I got close to Takemistu and he was interested in me. He started kind of acting like a friend to me. He asked me to do some kind of small scale concert and wanted me to play some of his graphic music, Corona for Pianists, where you can change it and you can improvise. He liked the way I tried. Other people thought I was kind of a big question mark but he liked it!
And then…what happened?
A bit later we were supposed to work for a movie together and I found out that even though he was very pure at a younger age, later he began looking for fame, glory and money since he took up a teaching position at Yale. When we started coming here we hung out together. You know the Corner Bistro has not just hamburgers but a jukebox of old jazz records, especially Duke. It was on Hudson St. And a couple blocks down from 14th St., and they always played old jukebox jazz records. We hung out there together and a little later I started to see his bullshit side. And later he even accepted some kind of national medal. National medal? Give me a break.
EI: You don't think he should have accepted the medal?
MK: I don't think so; it depends on the quality of the government! When I met him he recommended me to the Rockefeller Foundation, who gives out grants to foreign student artists. I almost got it but I will have to go back to Japan after a year. And I didn't like the idea so I refused it. That's when we started going in different paths.
EI: He probably thought you were supposed to take it.
MK: Yeah. I didn't want it. And with that kind of money I could have stayed here for only a year then go back home. Because it was some kind of cultural exchange program. I didn't want to stay in Japan for another three or four years, that's impossible. And I didn't like cash with constraints. Takemitsu and I didn't talk to each other since then!
EI: You told me to listen to an early piece of his, Dorian Horizon.
MK: It's amazing piece! November Steps is a more famous composition but it's too much, well, for me. Dorian Horizon is a piece of real music. It's amazing piece. Wakasugi Hiroshi is a great conductor. He was in Europe and now he's back home. His conducting is so precise. He was in Europe for quite a while like 25, 30 years. They made a record of Dorian Horizon.
EI: Yeah, that's the one I've heard.
MK: Sixteen string symphony.
EI: How do you feel being Japanese relates to the way you play piano and jazz?
MK: Many people are always questioning me about it but I think it's just my own interpretation. As long as I can believe 100% of it then I don't think it's any problem. Western people complain or Japanese people complain but I don't worry about the kind of difference that exists between two different things. As long as I kind of put it out through my instinct and my sense then I don't have to be ashamed of it or anything.
EI: Right, exactly.
MK: That's a way I've found, I think. That's what grew my musical sense with the piano. You know how everybody always talks about the "well-tempered" piano but I could predict how there could be more to it than that.
EI: You mean like in-between the notes?
MK: You can't change a piano's pitch, right? But I started working with it in my mind. Maybe I'm the only one seeing all those pitch changes but as long as I feel it nobody can argue with it because it's my own experience. I can say, "If you don't like it then stay away from it." I have a right to say that. Believing in myself is the same. I don't care or think about cultural issues. As long as I believe it then I don't have to worry about it. If someone else wants to worry about it it's their world, not mine.
EI: What about Japanese folk song? Is that something you care about?
MK: What kind of folk song? There are thousands of folk songs.
EI: I mean, is there an older style of Japanese music that relates to you?
MK: Oh, I think so. I was into Gagaku for a while. But it's hard for Japanese people to be able to listen to it live.
EI: When I listen to Dorian Horizon or I hear you play with Paul Motian I hear something that is Japanese. And I like it that it sounds Japanese! It's modern orchestral or modern piano music but there is also something that I perceive as Japanese, you know what I mean? I think it's important.
MK: I used to hate when people would point to a Japanese influence in my music but when I listen to them I start to think I sort of brew it. I find a way to brew it in a way for foreigners to understand to be able to communicate. So I said, "Ok! This is my way so who cares… fuck the world!" [laughs]
EI: Well lets get back to talking about some of your experiences back here in America. Let's talk about maybe Miles Davis and Gil Evans and some that 70s stuff.
MK: Oh yeah! Yeah…they are both two of the biggest influences I think.
EI: You played with Miles a little bit, right?
MK: Yeah. He came here, to this apartment. He was funny… and I think fourteen other musicians came. I told them Miles was coming and they just showed up.
EI: Did you record with Miles?
MK: I think so.
EI: But it never came out, right?
MK: There's one track we recorded. We were rehearsing at that time and Miles was staying at Larry Coryell's house. So Miles called me and Al Foster to go out to Connecticut. And Miles sent a Limo to pick us up. So we went out there but nothing happened.
EI: Sort of waiting around for Miles to do something, but nothing happens, right?
MK: Mhm. Miles got a tour, somehow connected to Willie Nelson's manager. In that moment he was interested in hiring Sly Stone for bass with Sam Morrison, Pete Cosey and Azzedine Weston. Gil Evans would be the arranger-in-residence. Sly didn't show the first day, and then the next night Miles said he was busted...... So that was that.
EI: What about Gil Evans? You told me you studied with Gil?
MK: Yeah, he's my real teacher.
EI: When did you start studying with Gil Evans?
MK: I don't know…we hung out together…the first time I went to his place was to offer him some work, because I was with the Japanese biggest booking agent and promoter Koinama, and he wanted to book Gil Evans in Japan having me featured. So we went to his loft in Westbeth and that was the first time I saw him. We then got closer and closer. He liked me and I respected him and we began exchanging music in every kind of way. When I had a studio in Brooklyn, I started playing solo piano. I wanted to know what I had played so I asked Maria Schneider to transcribe it. She transcribed a lot! And I spent a lot, too. Then when I get one I like I call Gil and he comes here and he goes through everything. He told me where he saw good places and asked, "Why is this good?" and would then explain it. That's all, really.
EI: Oh! So you'd look at transcriptions of your piano playing with Gil and he'd say which parts he liked?
MK: Yeah. I don't know how many times he came over…probably twelve times or something. Mostly he always picked up a good place in the music and explained why it was good. That kind of relationship, you know? And he never charged me anything!
EI: Oh really?
MK: No, not at all! I tried to pay him and he'd say, "No, I don't need the money." Yeah he was a real teacher for me. It's quite a lot for two hours at a time, sometimes three or four hours, right? I learned a lot. Each time I finished some music after those lessons I'd go to him and play some tape I'd recorded and he'd start criticizing saying things like, "This place is great" and explained why. That's the relationship I had with him…and without any payment. I was so fortunate! Eventually I produced two albums with Gil. That was such an experience.
(©John Rogers All rights reserved 2013. johnrogersnyc.com)
EI: When did you meet Paul Motian?
MK: I've been having a professional relationship with Gary Peacock for a long long time. Of course we get very close occasionally.
EI: Even on some early 70s records together, right?
MK: Yeah. He found out that I was going out to a different area. That's when he told me that Paul Motian was probably the best. And then I started recording with him, you know? I remember during The First Meeting there was a track where Gary had went to the bathroom. Later I found out that Gary had omitted that track when I was out on somebody's tour and when I came back it was already too late to get it on the record. But anyway, when Gary had went to the bathroom Paul and I started playing together and it was the happening. I think that was our first step into the direction of the style and formation of 2000+One after then. Because drums don't have exact pitches it's very easy to handle the keys. So when Gary came back from the bathroom we had finished one track and he loved it!
But Gary has a very two-sided direction for music. One is that he's good with a more normal trio and the other is how he's very good with a pianist like me without any direction, just kind of developing or following our own instinct without any logic or anything, just following our own feels. So that's a track that opened up the relationship between Paul and I. That was a quite a long time ago...
EI: '91 I think.
MK: Oh yeah? Since then we developed that direction. And that's why I ended up with Paul's band. I think when I joined Paul's band he must have felt a little strange because we hadn't played in quite a while but by the end he liked it. He just let me handle everything. Every bit of music. I ended up being his concertmaster for his last gig at the Vanguard. I knew he was tired because you remember, he got sick?
MK: So he called me and he wanted me to be the concertmaster. So I said okay!
EI: So you called the tunes?
MK: Yeah, but I could only finish one set. So I told him this and he said, "That's fine! We're just going to do the same thing both sets, all right?" Paul is very accepting! It's amazing!
EI: Seems to me that you both share something about space.
MK: Yeah. Yeah…space to give opponent.
EI: Opponent! [Laughs]
MK: Yeah, opponent! Opponent? Is that how you say it?
EI: Yeah that's right. Collaborator and opponent.
MK: [Contemplative] Yeah…I didn't know it was going to be the last gig…I never believed it.
EI: Did you like playing Motian's tunes?
MK: Not in the beginning, I didn't understand. But now I could probably play anybody's song if I see some kind of piece I can develop in my own way. I think I can do anybody's writing as long as they gave me the time and freedom to develop it.
EI: Yeah I guess since working with Paul in '91 you've really developed your own style that sounds like you.
MK: Because Paul supported me I think. At every moment he tried to. In the beginning I was still stuck basically with the bebop concept but especially since that first meeting I thought, "Oh ok, this is a way I want to go." It was epoch making. Since then 2000 + One changed. Drastically changed.
(Masabumi supplied the above bootleg, which is the very first time he played one of Paul's tunes on a gig. The intro, a profound abstraction of Motian's tiny A-flat "Last Call," goes on for over six inspired minutes before the head comes in with Motian, Chris Potter, and Larry Grenadier.)
EI: I first I saw you play at Visiones in 1991.
MK: Oh, on the dingy grand piano right?
EI: Yup. And I thought it was too much like Paul Bley.
MK: Oh. Okay.
EI: But then the next time I heard you with Paul it didn't sound like Paul Bley anymore to me. It sounded like something I didn't know.
MK: Yeah. I remember that. I was into Paul Bley. But then I realized how long I tried to be as good as Paul Bley, it's impossible because it's his own style! So I just said, "Fuck it!" That's when I think I opened up my eyes for my music.
EI: What about some of the other piano players Motian played with? Did you have a relationship to Bill Evans?
MK: Yeah. But I only liked the first album.
EI: New Jazz Conceptions?
MK: No…the first one with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian. What was it…
EI: Oh right. Explorations?
MK: Yeah! I think so. When they established their own trio style.
EI: What about Keith Jarrett?
MK: Keith is a great piano player! I can't play like him…I wish I could. He's just an amazing piano player. I listened to him in his concert at Carnegie Hall quite a bit. Last time I went to one was two years ago or something. It was somewhat of a personalized show for fans. He turned me onto that first album, Facing You. It's amazing! Unbelievable. I saw the video of him at some outside nighttime jazz festival in Connecticut somewhere. Have you seen that? The piano room was a bit closed up with speakers. Anyway, he was playing his ass off! I think his piano music made me brave enough because it's impossible to fall into that kind of style. He plays it with his own instinct. No kind of style at all. I couldn't do that.
One time I was playing at Visiones with Gary and Paul and Keith came. Some small scale orchestra at BAM played a couple of composers works including some of Keith’s. Gary told me before we started the set that Keith was going to stop by along the way back home. So I was kind of scared, right? When we were playing he came in. I saw him and went to him to say hello. He said to me, "Hey, you can play, I like it!" I just thought it was just an ordinary compliment, but I told Gary about it and he said Keith wouldn't bullshit at all and he meant it! He told me that I had to remember that. He was talking about my self-confidence. Yeah so, that's what happened! This is the first time I've heard from anybody that I could play piano! He understood the way I was playing piano. Most people don't realize the way I was playing. Because later I noticed I have my own style and approach. It's kind of sloppy but it's still representable enough about what I want to say, almost a perfect way. Fingering fast is not the only technique there is! I said fuck that and forgot about it. And then suddenly my fingers start working very fast! That's strange right? I tried to open up my reach, I guess.
EI: Oh, did you hurt your hands?
EI: You had tendonitis?
MK: Yeah. So I couldn't even play tenths! So I said ok, I have to find a way…my own way. This was about three or four years ago, I think. I didn't make a strong enough commitment and then one day I just noticed I was crossing hands. I was surprised because I didn't practice. I just recorded and developed my technique. So it's very natural now. That's fun!
EI: Sounds like it!
MK: I can do whatever I feel. It's amazing. I'm so lucky right? [laughs] I don't know how other people consider it but I think I did it. I don't care who said what.
EI: Do you feel like you think when you improvise or are you trying not to? Do you think and use your mind to remember things, or…?
MK: I don't even have the time to think about it. I start hearing it then I just concentrate on the connection between my ears, mind and fingers. And also right after that I feel like I have to judge it. So I don't have the time to prepare for it. You know what I'm talking about, right?
EI: Yeah. You're famous for singing while you're playing. Why do you sing?
MK: Probably because I don't know how to breathe. When I play and finish a phrase I stop breathing. That probably starts some sort of vocalization. It's all probably breathing, I think.
EI: What it seems like is that it's like you're trying to hear the sound of the piano in a different kind of way.
MK: What do you mean?
EI: I don't know…it's like you're following the phrases in a different way since you're singing them as well. Like you're trying to get the piano to sing.
MK: Yeah, but it's still not necessary to vocalize it right?
EI: No, I guess it's not but Bud Powell did, Keith Jarrett did.
MK: I know. Keith is very loud right?
EI: Maybe as loud as you but I don't know.
MK: Right…I think it's a matter of breathing. The phrasing between Keith and I is a little different I think. I think his construction of phrasing is much of a natural thing. Maybe I'm kind of "against people's nature." Did Monk make some noise?
EI: Monk made some noise but Powell made a lot of noise. Paul Bley sings too.
MK: Oh yeah? It's hard to control. But if it's loud then it's turning out to be a problem right, for my profession?
EI: When you play solo I don't think you sing as much.
MK: Yeah but I'm still softly moaning. Ah, "Softly Moaning." That's great! Ok…I got one new title for a song: "Softly Moaning."
EI: So it seems to me that you're saying that rather than play the most natural thing to find something that would work against the most natural idea. That you want abstract phrasing.
MK: I don't know because it's more like my muscles. My muscles get tired. So the ideas I hear by ear are also a kind of movement of muscle.
EI: Paul Motian never played the hits on the chart, especially in the last 40 years. You could hand him a chart with all these staccato hits, but he wouldn't do it. He wouldn't play those hits. He was going to play a counterpoint to the piece instead. You are similar, I think.
MK: Yeah, but also when I expected us to be playing together, he always did. That's amazing, right?
EI: What do you mean?
MK: If I hit the piano for an accent, he plays it at the same time.
EI: You really felt like you and him were playing the same things?
MK: When I want him to play with me he plays. I don't know how it happened. Any way he chose to make a point or anything, I never felt awkward at all. Always with me! Even against me it was always with me.
EI: Well it's like when you're playing some of Paul's tunes, the chart might say [scats short melody] and you'd play anything but that tune. You'd play a whole other thing against it. I've never saw you play on Paul's original music something that came from the chart.
MK: Oh, yeah? Oh…he let me do it, right?
EI: Well, it's also the way he played the drums on other peoples charts is what I'm saying: Looking for the counterpoint.
MK: I think I consider Paul's music to be strong in a couple spots but it mostly gives me inspiration. If I react to it sort of right, he would accept it. That's what I found each time I played with him. Then we played quite a while together. I think we each built up each our own territory in the charts. But I feel like we built up some kind of groove.
EI: You got a language together.
MK: Right right, a language yeah. Sometimes Gary's in. When Gary plays we can have a different feeling. It gives the music a different energy so it's very appreciable to the music. That's how I think I accepted it. Because of that fact. So maybe I'm not playing really the way Paul wanted it to sound like but I can change it, too. He has a kind of ten second phrasing, right? So how are you going to put the accent point of the phrase? If you find it then you don't have to play a ten second phrase; you could play a two second phrase! Another way to think of the balance is: what he meant, what he heard, what I hear, when we put them together, it comes out this way. As long as you have a responsibility for the part you play, there shouldn't be any problem there. That's what the trust is between two musicians. But if you can't have confidence there then you shouldn't play together. That, I think, is trust between two musicians. So if he didn't like it then he would probably stop and given me a chance to think it over or develop it to something else. Then when he feels that he can accept it he'd start playing again. But it's still musical, it's a composition right? You're not playing a kind of written down arrangement or a written down part at all. So it's negotiable all ways I think. I never thought of it in that kind of way before but when I started playing with Gary and Paul I had to learn it. Even felt like I was behind them and I didn't like that! I felt I had to stand at the same point that they're standing. I think in the beginning I was a really good student. I picked up quick. So now I'm majoring in it.
But Paul is gone now, right? Shit...
EI: What about all of those theme albums you recorded? Tosca, Jimi Hendrix and all that kind of stuff?
MK: Oh, it's for commercial recording progress. But still if I like it, then we can play it our own way. Especially Tosca: we played only the ballad right? Just followed the chords and soloed. So other than that, just nothing.
EI: I couldn't even find the Hendrix record.
MK: Oh, it's not good stuff. If I could have brought up a more of a modern concept it'd probably be more successful. But Jimi is basically a blues player, right? As long as you feel the blues…but I didn't think it happened. The session was wrong. I wanted to play Jimi's songs but I don't know why I was into it. Oh- I think Miles inspired me to listen to Jimi. It's another world.
EI: Yeah exactly. It's another world. Makes sense. So your other records with Paul, what are your favorites? Do you know? I like The Paradox of Continuity.
MK: Who's in the band?
EI: It's Larry Grenadier, Chris Potter and Rebecca Martin.
MK: Chris Potter played awesome. Tenor player. What was that fast song where he played his ass off..?
EI: He sounds especially great on that record.
MK: I liked him, yeah.
EI: Tell me about Thomas Morgan a little bit.
MK: Oh, he's a motherfucker! He's amazing…
EI: Big ears, right?
MK: Not only big ears, big heart and everything else…
EI: You've been playing a lot with Morgan and Todd Neufeld right?
MK: Yeah, a lot! They understand. Todd came in a little after. First I cut an album with Michael Attias, Thomas and I. Then I started playing with Todd I think. He grew up so quick. Yeah he's going to be a great guitar player soon. There's a lot of good young people. They're so quick to learn.They all know I change the direction all the time. They got used kind of to meet what I need. So I said I better take them. Now I have to be able to play as usual. I'm not playing only for us three, I'm playing for a certain number of audience. I have to get over that and not let that get into my mind. If I did I would probably have to change. So over the last couple of weeks I've had to prepare for a new experience in front of people as well as with and without a song. So it's a new experience. I like it. Once I tried to cancel it. But I should do it.
EI: You need to do it for sure.
MK: Yeah. And probably I'll find another way too. It's a good chance to develop my own.
EI: And it'll also be nice to play in Japan again, won't it?
MK: I don't care where I play. As long as the audience is there.
(Masabumi, Loren Stillman, Motian, Thomas Morgan, Ben Street. ©John Rogers All rights reserved 2013. johnrogersnyc.com)