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Takuya Kuroda: Fly Moon Die Soon's Delicious Future-Funk Throwback

Takuya Kuroda: Fly Moon Die Soon's Delicious Future-Funk Throwback

Courtesy Hiroyuki Seo


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I do agree that beats, computer productions, lack a human element—some people say, ‘I wanna eat that super organic healthy food'—but sometimes those same people just want to eat fast food.
—Takuya Kuroda
Last time All About Jazz spoke to Takuya Kuroda, just days after the release of his smoky, neo-soul-styled breakthrough Rising Sun (Blue Note, 2014), the Japanese trumpeter was asked what he wanted to record next. "I see myself doing more of a straight-ahead thing," he said at time. "I might do an album with strings."

Kuroda guffaws heavily when reminded of expressing this sentiment. After all, Rising Sun was instead followed by the thick funk/fusion workout of Zigzagger (Concord Records, 2016), and now, Fly Moon Die Soon (First Word Records, 2020), a self-produced sixth outing which sees the 40-year-old musician for the first time assuming the simultaneous roles of producer and beat-maker—alongside composer, soloist and bandleader—on a release that delves deeper into R&B, hip-hop and electronic influences than he might have imagined possible six years ago. Naturally, it wasn't easy to make.

"After Zigzagger I kind of got lost," begins Kuroda, on a call from his native Kobe, where the long-term New York resident has been hiding out since the pandemic took hold. "I was looking for inspiration for a whole new album, but I didn't want to do things in a similar way to what we'd been doing—put the microphone up in front of everybody, and 'let's go.' I kind of tired of it—not that I don't like it, but I've kind of been doing the same thing, I needed time to just focus and talk to myself, figure out what kind of tracks, what kind of music I wanted to make."

The answer presented itself, slowly, not on the bandstand but in his laptop. Kuroda had always used Ableton software to compose and create guide demos for other musicians ahead of a recording date; slowly he started to wonder if he needed these other players at all. In February 2018, to celebrate his 38th birthday, Kuroda blew the equivalent of a month's rent on two days at Brooklyn's The Bunker Studio, and showed up to the party with just his digital files for company.

"At that point I wasn't thinking of making a whole album, I just wanted to make two or three tracks as a trigger," remembers Kuroda. "After that two days, me and the engineer looked at each other and were like—'this is killing, this is something we were never reaching [before]'—so I was like, okay, this way I'm going to make an album in this direction."

Credited with "production assistance" on the bulk of the LP's tunes, onsite engineer Todd Carder became a huge influence in unlocking Kuroda's apparently hidden talent. "Todd was a big, big part of this album," continues Kuroda. "'Cause I didn't have any confidence as a beat-maker—and Todd was like, 'y'know Takuya, this is actually good!' I'd been doing this for a long time as a hobby, and for making demos for musicians to study and then interpret, but I never used it for a real record, 'cause I didn't know how good I was."

The new approach was announced ahead of the album on two distinctly groovy, radio-friendly vocal-led singles, "Change" and "Fade," featuring lyrics and lead vocals from sidekick Corey King, a singer-songwriter aside from a trombonist best known for working with Esperanza Spalding. These almost standalone collaborations sport a timeless, sun-kissed funk-soul aesthetic resting on modern R&B beats, to offer a joyful kind of future-retro throwback, neither aggressively contemporary nor a self-conscious nostalgia.

These tracks and the rest of the album came together over around 20 more studio visits to both The Bunker and Brooklyn's Electric Garden—often amounting to just a stolen hour or two—with Kuroda playing master producer, programming beats, adding synths basslines, keys, vocals and, of course, trumpet to half the album's tunes. Visiting musicians laid down overdubbed rhythm and horn parts, but Kuroda relentlessly chopped, changed and arranged. "That way I got so excited, because that's [all] my music—maybe 75, 85 per cent I did it on maybe half off the album."

The rhythms show a refreshing sophistication—and diversity. A slow trap-ish churn underpins the shifty instrumental title track which closes Side A, while there are shades of house music to the "Do No Why," built around Kuroda's looped Rhodes pattern and Moog bass line, scattered with asymmetrical synth stabs and skirted over by a pure Donald Byrd-esque solo firmly rooted in the soul-jazz idiom.

Fly Moon Die Soon marks the culmination of the evolving electric journey begun on Rising Sun, the trumpeter's name-making, one-and-only release on Blue Note Records, both a musical and career achievement Kuroda more or less entirely credits to longstanding friend and employer José James. Much as Kuroda allowed himself to be guided by the process and personal—and, especially, Carder—on his latest record, he followed James' vision and whims with his breakthrough release.

"It was his band, his production—it wasn't like I didn't care, but I wasn't sure what was going on at the time," he admits today. "To be honest, I was following José. It's more like people around me were excited and I wasn't sure what was going on, 'cause José was deciding everything and I was like, 'oh, shit, I have to write all the songs and prepare everything.' I didn't have the time to think about it. But it really hit me later—right, that was a huge boost on my career, that's for sure."

That frank combination of humility and open-mindedness has guided Kuroda throughout his almost two-decade career. Born and raised in the area around Kobe, Kuroda's formative influences were always jazz, all the time, gigging in big bands and riffing off an older trombonist brother. "When I was a teenager I was a jazz geek—bebop, hard bop, big band jazz—I wasn't even hip to the top 40 around then, I was listening to only jazz," remembers Kuroda. "It was crazy actually when you imagine my music now."

In 2003, Kuroda moved to the US, initially taking courses at Boston's storied Berklee College of Music before settling in Brooklyn, and enrolling at the "much less expensive" College of Performing Arts of The New School. More than the classes themselves, the Big Apple proved to be the seductive, musical melting pot of legend.

"New School was a great place to open up your music, it wasn't like authentic jazz heavy, many people were doing other stuff—folkie music, funk, hip-hop, Latin, salsa, all the stuff," he says. "Everything was new to me when I went to New York. I started going to church, I started going to do horn sections for hip-hop artists, and all these experiences in New York just opened doors of a lot of genres of music for me."

Kuroda's "first door to soul and R&B" was a compromise of sorts, playing in an organ-led soul-jazz outfit inspired by the Blue Note heroes Jimmy Smith, Blue Mitchell and Lou Donaldson. "We started to do gigs and I just learnt the concept that in another time, jazz musicians started doing pop songs to get more connection with regular people," he says. "I really loved the idea. Around the time I had already started to feel jazz can be a little bit too difficult for some people. It's not for everybody. I just started realizing this kind of beat is cool, too."

He would also get deeper into groove, and more attuned to the power of simplicity and repetition, as a member of NYC's Akoya Afrobeat Ensemble. When it came time to record Rising Sun, Kuroda chose to include two vintage Roy Ayers funk-jazz classics cuts, "Everybody Loves the Sunshine" and "Green & Gold"—the former with a guest vocal from James—while Fly Moon Die Soon sports a sun-kissed cover of the Ohio Players "Sweet Sticky Thing," recast as nodding, late-night R&B soul groover with vocals from Alina Engibaryan.

But while there's an undeniable feel for street beats and contemporary curves in his new music, Kuroda is not keen to dine out on the crossover or hip-hop influences that press hype is keen to highlight, or align himself with the generation of US-bred genre-fluid crossovers of Robert Glasper, Thundercat, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, et al he often shares playlist spots with (instead he cites Ambrose Akinmusire and Keyon Harrold as his greatest contemporary inspirations). "I didn't grow up with [hip-hop]," he says. "I was introduced to it after I moved to New York—18 years being in New York you can't escape from it, if you've living here you're going to hear it, see it, your friend is going to introduce you to some cool track, that's my relation —I learnt it."

Still, Kuroda had no intention of integrating these sounds into his own music until former New School classmate James invited him to join his touring band and perform on his Blackmagic album (Brownswood Recordings, 2010), and its mainstream follow-ups No Beginning No End (Blue Note, 2013) and While You Were Sleeping (Blue Note, 2014)—establishing his relationship with the legendary label which would make both men better known by jazz fans the world over.

"When I became beat-heavy is the experience with the José James tour; before that I was more of an authentic jazz player for sure—he didn't even use an upright bass, and most the songs when I was in his band were beat-heavy rather than swing or authentic jazz," admits Kuroda, with a wide-eyed skepticism that betrays the seismic nature of his own sonic reinvention. "He didn't even use a piano for a lot of set up, more Rolands and synths. It was all new to me, all new sounds, and somehow I fit in straight away, and José was like, 'Yo Tak, you sound good on this set-up." He pushed me to the front. And that's Rising Sun."

By the time Jones approached Blue Note with the idea of producing an album for Kuroda, the trumpeter had three solid, self-released acoustic efforts behind him, but he describes himself as almost an unwitting participant in the process of his own breakthrough—quickly assembling the material to be recorded in a four-day session on a break between two legs of Jones' tour. "José told me he wanted to produce my Blue Note album while we were touring his record, and I had to prepare all the things for the studio time while we were on tour—the only way was in hotel room, train or plane with my computer and a little midi keyboard," he remembers. "That kind of experience really helped me to get the experience get the skills to make demos and beats."

José's concept, Kuroda slowly understood, was simple—chilled jazzy grooves over soulful hip-hop beats—or, as Kuroda remembers it today a "D'angelo Voodoo jazz album" with "really, really mellow" trumpets. But not everything he presented to Jones met the cut—and the singer's demands were simple: dumb it down. "In the process of making Rising Sun I still had a little bit of pride that I wanted to show off my jazz side of me—maybe more complicated changes, odd meters, whatever is supposed to be like difficult to play. I brought in one song and José said, 'yeah, it's great music, but I don't think it's in the concept of the album.' And I was like, 'oh shit—there's a concept of the album.' That was really great lesson to me—the album was a concept. Of course you have to have one, but as a younger musician you just want to make an album, for people to say you sound great."

As a sign of how much his aesthetic ethos has evolved, today Kuroda almost appears to have the opposite approach. Despite the presence of some seriously swaggering funk cuts on the new record, which in many players' hands would dissolve into turn-taking showy solos, Kuroda's playing throughout remains remarkably mellow, introspective and distinctly unshowy. "When I was making the songs I wasn't thinking about where I'm going to put trumpets or shit, I was more focused on making songs—at one point I was singing for a song, and I didn't even think that it would be a trumpet," he says. "I'm coming from the culture—this album is more like producing myself; if I was a producer, and was producing Takuya Kuroda. I wanted to make songs. I don't mind playing just an eight-bar solo, but those eight bars are so important to me. I don't always need a three-minute solo to express my message."

Equally, he'll defend his use of beats to traditionalist die-hards who might insist real music is only made by real musicians—but paradoxically rationalizes such sentiments, endorsing the opinion that the very thing we call groove comes in fact from the small, subconscious embellishments falling around the beat that no computer can fake.

"I do agree that beats, computer productions, lack a human element, but at the same time so much of music people listen to consist of electronic productions," he reasons. "Some people say, 'I wanna eat that super organic healthy food made by people's hands for two hours—but sometimes those people just want to eat fast food too.'" So that makes Takuya's music fast food? Not quite—in some ways, beat-making is actually the equivalent of slow food—or at least molecular gastronomy. "It's also wasting time music, process wise—I make a beat and I replace so many notes, just sampling myself, that's the whole point of saving money and time—[by] replacing the kicks, bass, hi-hats, maybe I put in the spirit, put in the human element into the track, at the same time keeping the coolness of that bumpy, strong electric side of it."

Perhaps that's why Kuroda's beat-making is actually only half of the story. While those four self-produced, poppier-focused tracks set the tone for the album—pivotally occupying four of the record's first five tracks—the album's other five tunes, and notably all of the LP version's second side, are deeply intuitive live band recordings, capturing a deeply funky cast of musicians, including core players drummer Adam Jackson, Rashaan Carter on bass and keys players Takahiro Izumikawa and Takeshi Ohbayashi.

These largely instrumental workouts include the thick, furious funk-fusion bangers "ABC" and "Moody," and the slow, stomping closer "TKBK," built around a groovy blues bass vamp and stabbing hard bop horns. It's not clear precisely how much studio fiddling Kuroda allowed himself on these band recordings, but at face value the playing is slick, intuitive and as funky as any of the heyday heroes the players might be dialing—the rapidly unfolding chapters of Herbie Hancock's "Tell Me a Bedtime Story" tackled with almost cheekily assured ease.

"Sometimes when I look back at those songs from Rising Sun and Zigzagger, there are many little parts I feel like I could do better," he adds. "But this time because I had so much time, I could listen to it so many times and sometimes I would loop eight bars for one or two hours until I get satisfied, take out parts, add something. I don't know if you call it perfectionism, sometimes I couldn't help it. Some parts bother me, I have to take them out, but when you're doing a live jazz live album, it's tough to do that. Because when you do the session the best part is capturing live performance, the organic part, and I don't wanna lose that."

Aside from an innate preoccupation with groove, the one thing that unites Kuroda's three major releases is an awesome cover— Zigzagger's pop art color bomb is a rebuttal of Rising Sun's brooding, black and white portrait. Fly Moon Die Soon's tight cover crop captures a reflective, shades-toting Kuroda from a low angle, his impressive Afro proudly billowing heaven-wards, the whole thing bathed with a gold glow (a separate cover for the Japanese-only CD instead goes silver, with futuristic shiny garb, goggle shades and sculpted tree-hair straight out of sci-fi). A second shoot, which ended up providing the covers for singles "Change" and "Fade," took place in Nevada's Death Valley —source of a twilight epiphany which may have given Fly Moon Die Soon its oblique title, a metaphorical reference to the fleeting mortality of human beings in the face of the timelessness of nature.

"'Fly Moon' is nature, absolute existence, and 'Die Soon'—compared to nature, humans die soon, of course, but at same time, I love it," he says. "That night in Death Valley, I saw the most beautiful stars, the moon was shining and gold. Those stars and golden moon, in front of this absolute human nature, and I'm drinking beer—I'm getting wasted, and of course I love it. That's what makes humans human, I think, that weakness. It's kind of charming, that human beings just can't help it. It's like a blues—being honest."

From the cosmos and back to the hot, restless, scorched desert earth—the only question left to ask might be where we began: What might Kuroda's next album look like? "Maybe like a super acoustic duo album," he begins, before I remind him of his answer six years ago. "See, so don't ask me what's next—I don't know, it's a crazy journey," he rasps, letting the last hearty, disarming, laugh of a warm, hour-long chat.

"If this album goes well, I might do a little more beat stuff, I might be able to work with more people in this direction, which is awesome because there's more possibilities, it's more exciting to me. But don't take it wrong, it's not that I want to be a beat-maker—I think this album is so special because it's like, 'he did the beat, but it's still live'—if this balance becomes something, I may be able to establish my own sound a little bit more than ever before. And that's very happy news to me. That's the whole journey for me, creating and finding my own journey, style and color of music."

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