Takuya Kuroda: Rising Son


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Awards aren't handed down to individuals that proclaim how tough it is to live in New York. Likewise, it's not news to write that the life of the modern day jazz musician is difficult. If we follow the past two sentences we might come to the conclusion that the life of a New York jazz musician is not a bunch of wine and roses. While prodigies that venture off on world tours before they are legally able to purchase alcoholic beverages exist, they are—in most cases—the exception to the rule. The reality for most professional musician hopefuls is not one full of performances at huge gala events with even bigger paychecks at the end of the night. In actuality, the life of the recent conservatory graduate is one reduced to playing for tips at restaurants that overcharge customers for meals that are certified organic—whatever that means. Kobe-born, Brooklyn-based trumpeter, composer, and Blue Note recording artist Takuya Kuroda knows about the latter all too well.

Kuroda's latest album, Rising Son (Blue Note, 2014), acts as a metaphor for his career. The trumpeter explains that his career, like the sun that rises slowly, took time to develop in order to reach where it is at now. "I've been in New York for 10 years," Kuroda comments. "I wouldn't say it's been slow but seeing bigger results took time."

The 33-year old trumpet player was 20 when he first came to the U.S. to participate in Berklee's Five-Week Program. After the five weeks at Berklee, Kuroda went down to New York and lived with his cousin for a month. During this time, the Japanese trumpet player who couldn't even speak a word of English at the time found himself cutting it up at jam sessions every night. "There was a great [jam session] in Brooklyn at Up Over Jazz Café," recalls Takuya Kuroda. "It's closed now, but Vincent Herring used to run the jam session on Monday nights. It was kind of a happening jam back in the day. There were a lot of young lions that would play [there] like Robert Glasper and Kenyatta Beasley."

"I didn't have any friends in [New York] at the time, so the only spot I could go and meet other cats was at jam sessions," confesses the trumpet player. "I couldn't even speak English at the time, and the only way I could express myself was through playing trumpet."

Despite the language barrier, the month spent in New York proved to be enough to make Kuroda return. After finishing his studies at Konan University, Kuroda started attending the famed New School For Jazz and Contemporary Music in 2003 where he began studying under the late Laurie Frink. "Basically, the reason why I'm still in New York and I'm [still] playing is because I studied with her," Kuroda admits.

"I still remember the first day I studied with her," continues the trumpeter. "I was nervous and she asked me to play two octaves of a C Major scale. I was so nervous that I couldn't even make it [past] the second octave. She was like, 'It's okay.' Then she asked me what my goals were, what was my concept, and who I want to be. Then after 20 minutes, she gave me manuscript paper and she said to me, 'Work on this for month and come back.'"

What Kuroda saw on the paper shocked him. "It was just long tones and exercises that 12 year old kids [practice]," Kuroda explains. "I was like, 'Wait! I've been playing trumpet for 12 years!' But she explained and said it wasn't about how easy the [exercises] were, it was about getting to this crazy level of awareness."

Upon Laurie Frink's advice, Kuroda began practicing the seemingly abecedarian exercises that were prescribed to him and sure enough, he began seeing results. "I did the exercises and before I noticed it, friends at school came up to me and [started] saying, 'Yo! You've been shedding man!' I wasn't even shedding songs," Kuroda notes. "I was just doing this simple routine for a month. It wasn't like I was working on 'Giant Steps' at a really fast tempo or something, it was just about [getting] a better tone on the horn to make your ideas better."

But for all the shedding that Kuroda did during his time at New School, life after school was still a challenge. "I didn't really have my own project right after graduating, so I was focused on how I was going to make it in terms of paying rent and basic real world things that everybody faces after graduating," Kuroda recalls.

Shortly after graduating, Takuya Kuroda started taking all sorts of gigs in order to support himself. "I would take any gig," admits the trumpeter. Although there is a saying famous in freelance circles that goes, "A gig is a gig is a gig is a gig," not all performing opportunities and work-related contracts are equal. While performing, teaching, composing, arranging, and other odd jobs are good ways to earn an income in the beginning, there are the occasional hyper-odd jobs and gigs that arise. But this did not stop Kuroda from answering any calls. "I would take gigs—any gigs," he confessed. "I know a lot of cats that took stupid gigs, but I would go anywhere."

Even though the rising son of Kobe's desire to play never faltered, Kuroda was faced with difficulty shortly after graduating. "There were times that I would get really dark and say, 'I don't know if I can make [this] my entire life,'" Kuroda recounts. "Then a really good gig would come around and I would go, 'Oh shit! I can make it!'" The "really good gigs" that Kuroda encountered that lifted his spirits came in the form of wedding gigs, teaching, and/or arranging horn lines for well-known Japanese pop stars. But like any good plot to a good story, the one-offs that served as a morale booster to our protagonist would eventually end and Kuroda would be back to square-one. "Once in a while a good paying gig would come to me, then I would go back to no gigs and go, 'What the fuck?'" remembers the trumpeter.

Takuya Kuroda repeated this cycle until misfortune struck his family. "My grandpa passed away around 2009," he laments. "It was the first real loss that I've had in my family and it [made] me realize that life was really limited." With the awareness of life's brevity in mind, Takuya Kuroda decided to work on his first album, Bitter & High (Self Produced, 2010).

The trumpeter's first album as a leader was a good start and even landed him some attention on NPR. While Kuroda's debut album might have been a hit for critics, he was still faced with the problem of moving units. "I printed a thousand albums and there were piles of boxes in my room at the time," he remembers. "I was like, 'Fuck! What am I supposed to do?' So I arranged a tour in Japan."

"I booked 12 [shows] and I couldn't even get a hotel so I crashed at my parent's or my friend's place," Kuroda continues. "I kind of broke even with the money I spent. Doing that really helped my mental health because I felt like I had my own project." Though Takuya Kuroda wasn't making a lot of money through recording and booking tours for himself, breaking even was enough to help him decide to continue pursuing his own projects.

Bitter & High wasn't the only important release that Kuroda presented in 2010; the trumpeter also appears on vocalist José James' Blackmagic (Brownswood). James—who produced Kuroda's forthcoming album—first met the trumpeter when the duo performed at a mutual friend's senior recital at The New School. "I was on my friend's senior recital with Jose at The New School around 2007—right after I graduated," he elaborates.

"Jose came up to me after and asked me if I wanted to play on his album and I said yes," Kuroda continues. "This was the time that I didn't have a lot of gigs so I was ready to play on anything. From there, he started calling me more for shows and recordings. After two years, he asked if I asked to be an official member of the band."

Kuroda's affiliation with Jose James—a partnership that continues today—would prove to be a positive impact on the trumpeter. "I was lucky to be [included] in Jose James' band and travel all over the world," he shares. But James' influence over Kuroda's career goes deeper than just filling up his passport with immigration stamps. Rising Son, Kuroda's newest groove-heavy release was an idea that came from James.

"One day [James] came up to me and said, 'Yo Tak, I have an idea. How do you feel about me producing your album?'" Kuroda recalls. "I was like, 'What?' I didn't even know what a producer did at the time, so I was like 'Yeah, I'll think about it.'"

"But every time I saw Jose, he was so serious about it," he continues. "After months Jose was like, 'Yo Tak, did you decide?' So I was thinking, 'Oh my god, Jose's serious!' I thought that he would forget about it, but he was really serious so I agreed."

While Takuya Kuroda's 2012 release, Six Aces (Self Produced), features a few songs with a backbeat, the majority of Kuroda's albums stay within a straight-ahead palette. Rising Son is the first of project where Kuroda—as a leader—explores his sound exclusively through a hip-hop, neo-soul, and R&B lens. "Jose really wanted to focus on a groove because he really loved how I played on his band," Kuroda states.

Rising Son's eight groove heavy tracks were written while Kuroda was touring with James. "I started making music on my computer with Reason (a digital audio workstation)," Kuroda shares. "We're on tour all the time so I have my mini midi keyboard so I can write music on the plane, hotel, and anytime that I had free time to jump on the laptop to write [before] the recording date."

Joining Kuroda on Rising Son are names and faces that the trumpeter has been affiliated with for a few years. Longtime collaborator Corey King lends his trombone along with Kris Bowers on keyboards, Solomon Dorsey on bass, and drummer Nate Smith. An appearance is made by guitarist extraordinaire Lionel Loueke on "Afro Blues,"—a song written by Kuroda not to be confused with Mongo Santamaria's "Afro Blue."

Loueke's involvement in Rising Son came about when James' band and Loueke were both in London. "Lionel actually came to a show and sat in for four songs and that's how we met," Kuroda shares. "The song 'Afro Blues' needed a guitarist. The line that [Loueke] plays is a really strong compositional melody for me, so Jose was like 'Why not get Lionel?' They (James and Loueke) were with the same manager, so Jose talked to his manager and Lionel killed it."

"Afro Blues" is also Kuroda's hat tip to Akoya, a Brooklyn-based Afrobeat band that he's been a part of for the past six years. Kuroda became affiliated with Akoya when his best friend recommended him to the conga player. "My friend in Kobe gave him my number," Kuroda recounts. "He was like, 'You guys are musicians so you should collaborate someday or something.'" Kuroda then received the call to play when the conga player was moving apartments and found the piece of paper that was handed to him. "Akoya was looking for a trumpet player at the time and he (the conga player) randomly called me and was like, 'You play trumpet? Wanna sit in with us?' So I went and it was great."

If Kuroda's time with Jose James allowed him to travel the world, then his time with Akoya gave the jazz trumpeter a deeper understanding of the world of Afrobeat and its premier artist, Fela Kuti. "The lead singer, Kaleta, used to sing with Fela Kuti, so Fela's music is a really a big part of the band," shares the trumpeter. "I only knew about jazz at the time and I had no idea what kind of music [Afrobeat] was."

Even though a majority of Afrobeat songs are in four and while it might not be most harmonically sophisticated music that Kuroda's encountered, playing the music still presents unique challenges. "It's actually trickier than "Giant Steps" in 11/4," admits the New School graduate. "It's a good experience in feeling music rather than thinking music. There's no way you can think about the parts and there's no theory to it. You just have to feel, step with your feet, and hone your mind and body to groove to the music."

Also appearing in Rising Son is Jose James who steps away from the mixing console and onto the vocal booth for the Roy Ayers classic, "Everybody Loves The Sunshine." The rendition of "Everybody Loves the Sunshine" that gets captured in Rising Son came about during a performance of Jose James' rendition of "Park Bench People"(a song originally performed by Los Angeles rap group Freestyle Fellowship, which includes interpolations of Freddie Hubbard's oft sampled "Red Clay").

During a particular performance of "Park Bench People" when the band was off taking long solos, pianist Kris Bowers started playing a loop that caught the ear of Jose James and Takuya Kuroda. Within moments, James took to the microphone again and began imposing the melody of "Everybody Loves The Sunshine" to the groove that Bowers had set up. The excitement from the bandstand led to Rising Son's producer to suggest that Kuroda add "Everybody Loves the Sunshine" to the album, to which Kuroda obliged on the condition that James lends his vocals on the track.

Another Roy Ayers cut that makes it onto Kuroda's Blue Note debut is his noticeably slower interpretation of "Green and Gold." "Jose's such a good producer and he said, 'You have to have one good cover for your album to get more of a vibe,'" remembers Kuroda. Concerned with the overall tone and feel of the record, the trumpeter and the producer agreed that picking a jazz standard would not have made any sense. So the duo asked around for ideas of a good cover song that would accentuate Rising Son.

"We wanted an instrumental song and I forgot that 'Green and Gold' has been a huge favorite of mine so played the song for Jose and he said that the [song] was it," Kuroda recollects. Much like the other Roy Ayers cover that appears on Kuroda's newest album, the arrangement for "Green and Gold" almost came about by accident.

"We were rehearsing two days before the recording and Nate [Smith] couldn't make the rehearsal," Kuroda states. "So I asked my homie, Tomo Kanno, to sit in. We were jamming the song, and I said I wanted it a little bit slower. Then Tomo started plying this nasty slow jam on the drums and we were like, 'Wow! This is it!'"

But not every song in Rising Son came out via happy accident, Takuya Kuroda also uses his latest album as a medium to send his emotions out to loved ones. "I'm 33 now and things are different to when I was 23," Kuroda explains about the meaning behind the title of his song, "Sometime, Somewhere, Somehow."

"The reason I started writing the song was for my grandfather who passed away, but it's also for [anyone]," continues the composer. "You lose your close friends and you have to face the fact that important people are going to pass away. It can also be about love. You might have to say goodbye to your girl and friends you'll never see. A lot of shit happens, and a lot of my emotion was just poured in there. So it's just like 'Sometime, Somewhere, Somehow' we might see each other again. It might happen and it might not—I don't know. It's really about my emotions going into this song."

A lot of affectivity comes into play in Rising Son. Whether it's a play on words that highlight Kuroda's Japanese heritage or it's his way of recalling his career that started from scrounging up gigs to touring the world with Jose James, Rising Son marks a new dawn for Kuroda's burgeoning career. Perhaps the allure of Rising Son is in its composer's ability to remember all his past experiences whether its playing Afrobeat with Akoya, geeking out with Jose James on stage, or the simple feeling of nostalgia that everyone has about those days of wine and roses that are long gone.

As the song so cleverly states, "Everybody Loves The Sunshine," and it's easy to live life with "bees and things and flowers." But often times, what is forgotten is the night that precedes the sunrise. Although Rising Son is a strong departure from his previous albums, the schoolboy from Kobe who grew up playing Count Basie charts has never forgotten his musical roots. "I see myself doing more of a straight-ahead thing, but it will be a different project where it's only straight ahead," Kuroda shares concerning his future projects. "I might do an album with strings or I might do a more traditional straight- ahead thing." But regardless of what Takuya Kuroda chooses to pursue next, he knows one thing is certain: "I know that I will always write music that makes people feel good when they hear it."

Selected Discography
Takuya Kuroda, Rising Son (Blue Note, 2014)
Jose James, No Beginning No End (Blue Note, 2013)
Takuya Kuroda, Six Aces (Self Produced, 2012)
Takuya Kuroda, Edge (Self Produced, 2011)
Jose James, Blackmagic (Brownswood, 2010)
Takuya Kuroda, Bitter & High (Self Produced, 2010).

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