From Kansai to New York: Jazz trumpeter Takuya Kuroda on going back to basics

by Oscar Boyd

Staff Writer

In the dimly lit Under Deer Lounge in Shibuya, jazz trumpeter Takuya Kuroda conducts an impromptu ensemble with raucous enthusiasm.

Preceded by his Afro, he bounces around stage, announcing soloists and welcoming new musicians to the front. The music is undoubtedly Kuroda’s, but the rotating cast of performers offers new interpretations.

It’s a celebration, not just of his music but of music in general, and the joy of playing it.

Kuroda, 38, has come a long way from his early forays into jazz. Born and raised in Ashiya, a coastal city located between Kobe and Osaka, he has been a resident of New York for the past 15 years, and now channels the energy of both cultures. In conversation, he is as ebullient and expressive as he is when behind the trumpet, and swears like a well-scripted character from a Tarantino film.

“Ashiya’s tiny. It’s well-known, there’s lots of wealthy families there, it’s a good place, but there wasn’t much music,” says Kuroda. The exception to that was the Konan Brass Ensemble, a big band based out of the local high school. “The teacher wasn’t that serious — he was soft, mellow — but we practiced every day, we only got New Year’s and o-Bon off. We were playing Count Basie, Glenn Miller and Woody Herman. It’s f—-ing simple music, there’s like two chords throughout, but it’s all about rhythm, that’s my root.”

Kuroda learned by imitation. As he became more advanced, soloing came from copying the trumpet greats: Clifford Brown, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis; but the basics were taught by older students.

“No one knew the proper way to play the instruments,” he says. “My senior, Kentaro, gave me a mouthpiece and said: ‘Here’s a mouthpiece. Buzz it. Long tone. One hour a day.'”

It wasn’t until he was 20, while playing at a club in Ashiya called Left Alone, that Kuroda received his first proper instruction.

“A pro trumpeter came up to me — Takashi Shimamoto — and said: ‘First off, you sound good. But if you keep playing trumpet like that you’ll be done in five years.’ I changed my embouchure after that. I lost range, I lost volume, I sounded like a flute for six months, but it’s what got me here,” Kuroda says, laughing.

If meeting Shimamoto was one defining moment in Kuroda’s early career then a five-week music course at Berklee College of Music in Boston was another.

“I did the course and then moved to New York where my cousin was staying and spent a month going to jam sessions at Cleopatra’s Needle on 93rd and Broadway,” he recalls. “That experience made me want to move there.”

Those early sessions showed Kuroda the depth of talent in New York. At the time he couldn’t speak much English, and admits to feeling intimidated by the city’s vibrant jazz scene.

“There was this one time I was watching a band (at Cleopatra’s) and they weren’t that good, so I thought, ‘I’m gonna go (up there), next song,'” he says. But before he got a chance to get on stage, a new group stormed through the bar and straight to their instruments.

“There were these five kids, kinda young, maybe 19 or 20, but with all kinds of attitude,” Kuroda continues. “They started playing ‘I’ll Remember April,’ a jazz standard. I knew it really well, but after five seconds I was lost. It was like hearing a new language for the first time, they were that good.

“I hid my trumpet. I was like s—-, I can’t do this. I’d never felt so depressed,” he says. “It was like God coming down and saying, ‘Takuya, this is the level you’re going to have to compete with … are you sure you want to (have a) f—-ing go?'”

It’s an image incongruous with the effervescent, confident trumpeter opposite me, but the feeling was justified — that group included scions of 21st-century jazz: on keys was a 19-year-old Robert Glasper, on trumpet Keyon Harrold and on alto saxophone was Logan Richardson.

Kuroda might have fled the city, but the prospect of returning home was unbearable and, at the time, he felt like the Japanese scene had nothing to offer.

“New York brings in people from around the world,” he says. “It makes Tokyo nothing, you know? If I was still in Tokyo, I’d be a lazy motherf—-er.”

From 2003 to 2006, Kuroda enrolled at The New School in Manhattan, where he met many of his compatriots, including singer and composer Jose James, who would later take Kuroda on tour and produce his 2014 Blue Note album, “Rising Son.”

Kuroda began writing blues tunes while in high school, starting with a tune he called “Aodaisho” (after the Japanese snake known as the “blue general”).

“In the early days I started with simple stuff and then, after a while, I started to progress toward more complicated harmonies,” he says. “I wanted to make music that had catchy melodies, but underneath had these tensions and sequences that were really tricky. The kind of stuff you don’t realize is hard until you started to play it. That was my s—-.”

For “Rising Son,” however, Kuroda’s style was pared-back by James, and took on a more neo-soul, hip-hop vibe.

“Jose wanted it simple, and wanted a concept, and that concept was the beat,” Kuroda says. “If you listen to that album, the drag beat runs throughout. It’s not just a 10-track masturbation project.”

When Kuroda writes for the trumpet and keys now, that concept of simplicity remains front of mind.

“I moved away from chords and progressions, and now start with simple parts: a bassline, a drum beat, they allow much more room for movement,” he says.

The concept-based method of composing was also apparent through Kuroda’s second major release, “Zigzagger” (2016), and he plans to utilize it once more for an upcoming, untitled album.

“I’ve got great sketches, great ideas and now it’s just putting them all together. ‘Rising Son’ was simple, ‘Zigzagger’ was more layered, this album is going to be more pre-produced. I’ve been spending time in the studio making samples and engineering beats.”

Sat atop those beats will undoubtedly be the distinctive sound of Kuroda’s signature Stradivarius Mt. Vernon, New York Bach trumpet, an instrument he picked up after he moved to New York and has played ever since.

“My friend Patrick worked at a vintage instrument store and one day this 1955 New York Bach trumpet came in,” Kuroda recalls. “It was $2,000 at the time, a little expensive for me. I had $200 in my pocket, used that as a deposit and spent the next week chasing friends and family for money to afford it.”

Fans are going to have to wait until later this year — or even early 2019 — to hear how Kuroda’s ideas evolve, but he promises any new release will be different from his last two.

“On ‘Rising Son’ and ‘Zigzagger’ I kept to two and four (time signature). This album’s going to be cooler, less heat, with more variety and through-composition,” he says.

In the meantime, Kuroda returns to Japan regularly, both to tour and to mentor an upcoming wave of Japanese artists. Though he feels closer to New York now than he does to Japan, he is passionate about the local scene.

“After two weeks here I start to feel like I’m losing New York. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just different here, you become your environment,” he says. “The main difference is creativity. The music scene here — from audience to players — needs to be more open to new styles, and that’s what I want to bring back every time I come to Japan. Import, educate and make the crowd love it.”

For more information on Takuya Kuroda, visit www.takuyakuroda.com.