Takuya Kuroda’s major label debut album Rising Son (out now) is aptly titled, serving as an audio chronicle for the Japan-born trumpeter who’s spent the last decade coming up in New York. While getting introduced to jazz abroad, moving to America expanded his musical vernacular to include rock, hip-hop, soul and gospel. “The start in Japan was great because I was not ignorant, but I was really [naive] because I was just doing jazz,” he said. “Coming to New York opened the doors to new music. I was so enthusiastic to get everything, to discover new things, and I think that became a lot of energy to create my own voice writing music. It really helped in terms of me being more flexible, hustling to get new stuff into my music.”
Meeting and touring with soulful jazz vocalist Jose James – who produced Rising Son – was one of many steps that helped Kuroda’s cultural transition.
Life+Times: How did you land on this album title, Rising Son?
Takuya Kuroda: Jose James, he came up with the name. He texted me, [saying], “Yo, I have this name,” and I was like, “That’s actually perfect.” Sun – s-u-n – you know how the sun goes up, comes down, and in 24 hours comes back in the same place? It’s slow, but it’s really strong. Moving really slowly but surely – I moved all the way from Japan to New York 11 years ago, and I won’t say that my career has been that slow, but I’ll say it’s definitely taken time to get where I am right now. Just like other musicians, I struggled to just make money. I had to do lots of kinds of music and gigs to be able to do my own album with Blue Note. This album Rising Son is basically about everything in my life in New York for the last 10 or 11 years. It’s a presentation of everything thing I learned that inspired me.
L+T: What role did Jose James play in helping you put the album together? He produced Rising Son, and you’ve toured with him and played on his most recent albums.
TK: I’ve been part of [Jose's] band, touring all over the world for about three years now. We met each other at [The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music] in New York, and we ended up playing at the commencement recital. He asked me if I could join him on his album BLACKMAGIC. From there, we’ve just been playing a lot. After shows, we always have a chat and talk about music, and he’d always ask me about my own stuff. One time, he came to a show I had at the Blue Note in New York, and after the show he’s like, “Yo, Ty, I really like your stuff. You gotta step forward, people want to hear you more.” He always pushed me like that. Time goes by, then he came to me last year, like, “Ty, how about I produce your album?” He wanted to make the album to present me in the front. I was like, “Cool. Why not? Let’s do it.” I thought he was joking at first. But he kept saying it for months and months. So I started writing the songs, and he put together this concept for album to make something that’s really strong – R&B, hip-hop, soul, but high-[level] melodies and jazz. Make sure that all the songs make people’s heads bop. Last year, we had one week off between tours. We went to the studio in New York and just knocked the tracks out. We didn’t even know if it was gonna be on Blue Note Records or not yet, we just did it.
L+T: Most of the guys playing on the album are in Jose’s band. How easy did that make it for you all going to the studio and recording the album?
TK: It was easy, but difficult, too, actually. I was thinking, “Oh, it’s gonna be easy because we’ve been playing all these years, we know each other well.” But actually, it’s not that easy, because they’d never played my music. We always played Jose’s music. So the first day was like, “Oh shit, it’s different than what Jose is doing.” But it didn’t take too long for everyone to get adjusted to my direction. After that, everyone was giving great ideas to the arrangements and concepts. I was just playing trumpet, then giving them the demos and originals, and they killed it. We didn’t even need the last day [in the studio] that we booked, which speaks to how fast the whole process was.
L+T: The tone that you’re playing with is great, and as you mentioned, all of the songs are head-boppers. What’s the difference being the leader as opposed to a sideman?
TK: It’s a big difference. I’ve been leading a band since years ago, I released three albums already with no label. So I have experience. It’s so different being the leader because you become the main voice of the music and there’s a lot of pressure because you have to lead others in one direction so that they don’t get lost in the music and give them a clear idea of the concept. I also feel like I have to play trumpet better [when I’m the leader]. So it is a lot of pressure, especially in the studio – of course you can do it a couple times, but you want to make it really nice on the [first] take. A lot of feeling and thoughts were in my head, but having them – since we’ve been playing together – [really helped]. They could cheer me up or say, “Let’s take a break,” if they see I’m kind of stressed out. It was great teamwork with Jose’s band, but being a leader is a whole different world for me. Being a sideman, playing trumpet in Jose’s band is really great, too. As a role player, I always think, “What can I add to Jose’s music?” Sometimes I lay back, sometimes I jump in. Like basketball, in the fourth quarter, you’re on the bench and the coach wants you to do something to change the flow. Being a sideman is like that. Being a leader, you have to be really clear about what you’re hearing and seeing, and make others [understand] your concept. It’s super-fun, but it’s tough. For this album, I’m really happy about it because of the team play.
L+T: Two of the songs are Roy Ayers tracks: “Green And Gold” and “Everybody Loves The Sunshine”. Why did you decide to include those?
TK: I’ve been a super-big fan of Roy Ayers for a long time. Jose, when we had a meeting about the album, was like, “We need to do some covers, but not jazz ones. Something else strong, it can be funk, soul, whatever.” Jazz albums – when you wanted to do covers – it used to be standards. But since the concept of the album is totally different, we were looking for something else that still had a strong atmosphere to it. We were asking people, and one day I was going through my iTunes on my laptop, and I was like, “Why didn’t I think about this song?” “Green And Gold” is my favorite, that’s how I picked it. “Everybody Loves The Sunshine” – there’s one song on Jose’s set, “Park Bench People,” that he always does. On the tour, Jose started doing the first part and the chorus, and Kris Bowers started playing a really cool loop with these different chords. Me and Jose were on the side of the stage, like, “Shit, that’s really cool.” Jose started singing “Everybody Loves The Sunshine” to me. He got back on the mic and started singing. Jose came up to me later and said let’s put that on the album. That’s how we came up with the arrangement.
L+T: Growing up in Japan, what is jazz’s place there? And how did coming to America change or shift your approach to playing jazz?
TK: I think it’s true that jazz is really popular in Japan, but I think it’s still [specific] to a certain people. It’s not like everybody loves jazz. I was lucky enough that my high school band was playing a big time jazz repertoire. That’s how I got into jazz and started playing at the jazz club in Japan, mostly just playing jazz standards. It was everything to me, but I never really listened to pop music or R&B because I just wanted to get better at jazz. I moved to New York wanting to be a better jazz trumpet player, went to the New School and met so many different musicians from the same generation [as me] doing a lot of other stuff: gospel, hip-hop, rock. That opened new doors so much over the past ten years, and that’s why I’ve had opportunities playing real gospel at a deep church in the Bronx, doing rock shows, hip-hop, I’ve had so many chances to play a lot of music other than jazz. This opportunity [allowed me] to put all the elements of each music into one music that I enjoy hearing right now.
Rising Son is available now.