TAKUYA KURODA Rising Son makes for the perfect title for the Blue Note debut from Takuya Kuroda, an ascendant trumpeter and composer who is perhaps best known for his inspired presence in vocalist José James’ band over the past several years. In fact, Rising Son finds Kuroda stepping forth to helm James’ remarkable band – featuring keyboardist Kris Bowers, electric bassist Solomon Dorsey, drummer Nate Smith, and trombonist Corey King – with James in the producer’s chair instead of behind the microphone (excepting a hypnotic version of the Roy Ayers classic “Everybody Loves The Sunshine” to which James lends vocals).
In addition to anchoring James’ horn section, the 33-year-old Japanese-born, Brooklyn-based musician has been leading his own bands and has self-released and self-produced three previous albums. While touring with James in support of the singer’s Blue Note debut No Beginning No End, he let James listen to some of his newer material. James enjoyed it but wanted to hear more of Kuroda’s playing and so the idea developed to have James produce the next album. James also encouraged Kuroda to accentuate more of hip-hop and R&B. “José said ‘Make sure you have something in the music that makes people bob their heads,’” Kuroda recalls.
“No one sounds like Takuya,” says James. “His tone, warmth and most of all his storytelling have inspired me for years. His writing is soulful, modern, and effortlessly bridges the gap between jazz and soul, and between history and tomorrow.”
The suspenseful opening title track immediately introduces Kuroda to a wider-audience with its cosmopolitan arrangement. Smith and Dorsey lay down an infectious Afrobeat groove underneath the evocative keyboard and horn melodies and textures. “I just wanted to have something to set up the mood for the album. It evokes how the sun rises and opens up the entire world,” Kuroda explains. Note the spelling of “son” as opposed to “sun,” which Kuroda uses as a metaphor for his career. “When you see the sun go up, it rises slowly. Like my career, I’ve been in New York for 10 years. I wouldn’t say that it’s been slow but seeing bigger results took time.”
Afrobeat rhythms play a crucial role throughout Rising Son. They reflect Kuroda’s six-year participation in the New York-based Afrobeat ensemble, Akoya. Afrobeat’s entrancing shuffle propels the tantalizing “Afro Blues” on which Kuroda’s spiky trumpet melody with urban swagger evokes Lee Morgan, one of Kuroda’s significant influences along with Clifford Brown and Miles Davis. Benin-born guitarist Lionel Loueke contributes a bluesy yet percussive solo and accompaniment that reinforce the composition’s Motherland pulse.
The ebullient funk on “Piri Piri” evokes another African flavor. The phrase is Swahili for “pepper pepper,” noting a regional spice that’s a main ingredient for a chicken sauce common in such African countries as Ghana, South Africa and Nigeria. On the song, Kuroda spits one of his funkiest solos on the disc, which is matched by King’s velvet-honed trombone solo and the gripping groove concocted by the rhythm section.
On “Mala,” Kuroda gives a shout-out to the celebrated Afro-Cuban DJ Mala, who released the 2012 underground classic Mala in Cuba. The album became a favorite for
Kuroda, helping him delve more into DJ culture. Underneath the unusual serrated and smooth rhythms, Kuroda blows an economical trumpet melody that recalls Miles Davis’ late-80s period. Kuroda commands on ballads as he does on up-tempo compositions as evident by the misty “Sometime, Somewhere, Somehow,” which he dedicates to his recently departed grandfather. He pairs his flugelhorn alongside King’s trombone for unison melancholy melody that floats atop Smith’s stuttering backbeat and Bower’s amber-toned Rhodes asides.
More melancholy arrives on the sensual “Call” featuring Kuroda alternating between open and muted trumpet against a smoldering groove. The trumpeter says that watching the season shift from summer to autumn informed the melody and dark harmonies.
The album also features two Roy Ayers’ gems – “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” and “Green & Gold.” The former takes a punchier approach with an arrangement that actually came out of one of James’ live performances of “Park Bench People” in which the ensemble often starts freestyling on stage. Kuroda and James kept the arrangement and superimposed the timeless melody and lyrics with James’ lending his captivating baritone.
When Kuroda and James were searching for another cover for the album it provided an opportunity for Kuroda to give a makeover of his favorite Ayers’ tune, “Green & Gold” on which he takes at a noticeably slower pace that allows listeners to luxuriate in his salty tone and percussive delivery of melodies.
Before Kuroda arrived in the U.S. in 2000, he grew up in Kobe, Japan and followed his older, trombone-playing brother’s footsteps by joining the junior high school jazz band. While in Japan, Kuroda played in jazz bands for 12 years, from junior high school through college jazz big band. But he says that he really got into jazz by playing on the local jazz scene with the smaller combos. “The big band was just playing music charts; it didn’t have much improvisation,” Kuroda explains, “I sat in with a lot of the elders on the local scene. They showed me so much love.”
Kuroda eventually came to the U.S. where at the Berklee College of Music he had his first formal jazz studies. “I never had a jazz music teacher in Japan. I took my first music theory, ear training and jazz ensemble classes for the first time in my life in English, which made it even crazier,” he says, “ But that made me want to come to New York.”
With his close association with James, Kuroda is primed to become a major voice on the 21st century modern jazz-funk scene with Rising Son signaling a new dawn.
Kuroda and James’ partnership dates to a decade ago at Manhattan’s New School of Music. Kuroda was graduating during the time when James arrived at the school. Nevertheless, they performed on a mutual friend’s senior piano recital. James’ liked Kuroda’s playing and invited him to participate on his 2010 sophomore disc, BlackMagic. Kuroda made a memorable contribution on James’ composition “Promise Me Love” from that album. James later recruited Kuroda for live shows and the recording sessions for No Beginning No End, on which Kuroda also wrote the horn arrangements.