Takuya Kuroda talks boxing, beat-making and ramen — Sungenre Interview

Takuya Kuroda talks boxing, beat-making and ramen

Dan Webb
Takuya Kuroda is an acclaimed Japanese trumpet player and arranger who combines elements of hip hop, Afrobeat and funk. Following a stint in New York, collaborations with the likes of José James and releases via prestigious jazz institutions Blue Note and Concord, his sixth studio album Fly Moon Die Soon was released in September.

I’ve never been to Japan. What’s the first thing I should do when I’m finally able to come visit?
I mean, Tokyo is a great city. Check some music out, museums and temples and shrines. But if you like to eat, ramen is my favourite food. So you can just jump on any ramen restaurant and it’s very reasonable. It’s only like maybe seven bucks.

Nice. Do you have a favourite ramen restaurant?
Yeah, it’s called Ippudo, which is – you can actually find many places in Tokyo. I see it all over Japan, but the quality is really, really nice and you’re going to love it, man.

I can’t wait.
Yeah, man.

You once said, “If I was still in Tokyo, I’d be a lazy motherfucker.” So now that you’re back in town, I have to ask the obvious question, are you being a lazy motherfucker?
(Laughs) I’ve been what? I’ve been – what was the word?

Lazy motherfucker, I think, is the term you used.
(Laughs) This is a special situation right now.

Yeah. For sure.
I am not lazy at this time. I’m very fortunate that I got… I’m actually a little busy doing a lot of promos and also a little bit of gigs, not my own gigs, but I got little gigs live streaming for pop singers and stuff. So yeah, it’s been a blessing being here, that there’s something that I can do, you know?

Yeah. I’m not too aware of what the situation is like in Japan right now. Are there still live shows happening or is it pretty much dead at the moment, just completely quiet? Has it all moved online now?
To be honest, there’s shows already going on, and they’re very, very small size shows, like 20, let’s say 50 capacity jazz club. They doing the shows, but there’s only 20 people. So that’s the reality. Even though jazz clubs opened business, they are struggling to just make normal money. So even one of the most respected jazz clubs in Tokyo is about to start crowdfunding, you know?

It’s very difficult, yeah.
So yeah. They have the shows that are going on, but at the same time they can’t have a full capacity audience in, so at the same time struggling. That’s how it is right now.

Yeah. It’s tough for a lot of people in the industry.
Yeah.

Well, moving on to more happier things, I just want to say congratulations on the new album. I understand-
Oh, thank you.

Yeah. I understand that you spent a lot more time working solo on this one this time around.
Right.

What spurred this on and how was the experience of working in isolation?
This started like two years ago, February. It was like on my birthday in February. That was like kind of my birthday gift to myself. Instead of going to the studio with my homeys, like musicians, I chose to go there just myself and the engineer, Todd Carter, who is a big big part of this album. At that time, I was working on a few tracks… but a long story short, I never had confidence using my beats to the final product, the final track. I never considered myself as a track maker or a beat maker. So I always ended up – I used to have a demo showing my friends and musicians what kind of new songs I’m working on… but at the time, I was like, I showed a beat to Todd, the engineer. You know, like, “Yo, Todd.” I’m like, “This is not bad. This is actually… You can maybe just match a few notes and a few snares and little things.” And then, he was like, “This is a great song. This is a great beat. This is a great sound.” I was like, “Oh, really?” And then, I was like, “Okay.” Why not just [have] me and him working the one track and let’s see how far we can go on that song, which was actually “Fade”, the first song of the album. We were in the studio for two days, and then after full two days of working, we were just looking at each other, like wow. The song “Fade”. We finished like maybe 60, 70% of the song, just me and him pretty much. I played keyboards, a little bass, all the things. I even hit the snare or just the bass drums, just start sampling ourselves. It’s more like a lab. Like just sound engineering. Sampling myself and just trying everything.

So those experiments became my new inspiration that I want to work on the new album in that way, instead of the regular way that I’ve been doing. Just have the musicians and then put the microphone in front of everybody, and then three, two, one, zero, hit the record button. Instead of that, just work on the beat first and then have musicians lay their own. So in a simple word, it’s just more and more pre-production. Like a lot. A lot of pre-production. That was the trigger to starting this whole process of the album, I would say.

Sometimes when you are not a drummer you come up with impossible patterns.

In listening to the album, it sounds like you’re sort of being pulled into two seemingly opposing directions at once on this record. So there’s the jazz-funk influence of the likes of Herbie Hancock and Freddie Hubbard, but then there’s also the beat-making and sample-based production side of things. Who your influences are on that side of things? Are you looking to jazz artists for your beat-making or are you looking more to hip hop and electronic influences such as J Dilla?
I’ve been doing that (beat-making) actually for a long time now, but I just never used that for final tracks, but yes. Like let’s say the Rising Son album, I wrote the song “Mala”, who is a very well known beat maker, and of course, yeah. Flying Lotus and of course, J Dilla. I just believe that sometimes the sounds from the beats made by those guys, like have a certain impact and sonically have a big power given to the audience. I always want to try come up with unique beats or patterns that you can try on the computer. Sometimes when you ask musicians it ended up always being similar ways, so then I could just try. Because sometimes when you are not a drummer you come up with impossible patterns, because you don’t play drums or bass. My bass player always said that. This is actually interesting because if you are a bass player, you never come up with this line because it’s really difficult to play or something like that. So if you work just yourself and a computer, good or bad, I don’t know, but you come up with unique or fresh things…

Jazz is so broadly ill-defined by so many people and there are so many different aspects and avenues to explore within the world of jazz. You’re exploring sample-based production, the electronic elements, a fusion of sorts. And then, you’re also incorporating the Afrobeat side of things. But I’m just curious, what is jazz to you? How would you define jazz?
I kind of stopped thinking about that a while ago because it became very difficult to define what it is. It’s more like – this is how I feel always. It’s difficult to define [jazz] for me because it always becomes difficult when somebody wants to define your music. Because I can just simply say, “Oh, this is jazz. This is music.”… some people just think authentic jazz is the jazz or, you know, but some people accept all kinds of jazz, all kinds of music. So to me, it became really difficult. Like me, personally, I think everything is music, everything is jazz, but at the same time I would say the music that I’m doing now is very different from what I wanted to do. Or no. I would say – It’s so different already from what I would have done 15 years ago.

Sure. Why do you think that is?
It’s because environment and then the experiments and this is how I feel. As an artist, capturing your present time, that’s what you have to do. So you can do the same thing, or if your life is the same all the time over years and years, yeah. So probably you explore, you might be same, but I’m 40 now, and then my life now is totally different from when when I moved to New York, which was 23 years old. So I do feel it’s so natural and organic, the music. One’s music is different all the time just as your favourite food is different as you age.

As an artist, capturing your present time, that’s what you have to do… my life now is totally different from when when I moved to New York.

You studied jazz at Berklee in Boston and The New School in New York. Miles Davis wrote in his autobiography, “I could learn more in one session at Minton’s (a jazz club in New York) than it would take me two years to learn at Juilliard.” What did you get out of the formal education at university which you couldn’t find elsewhere by other means?
Would you repeat the thing again? So, basically, I went to Berklee, but that was only for a five week program, which was mainly for high school students… then, my official study was at The New School, 2003 to 2006. That’s my education history. But I wasn’t sure, what was after that? Minton’s or something?

Yeah. So Miles Davis felt that he could learn more visiting jazz clubs around New York than he could in a formal setting, like in a school, at Julliard. He just felt that the education wasn’t as relevant to what he was trying to pursue. I’m wondering if you felt that studying formally was beneficial to you and what were the lessons and techniques that you picked up there, which you couldn’t learn in a similar manner to Miles Davis, going out to gigs and seeing other people perform.
Oh, I see. So The New School itself was awesome for me, first of all. Someone coming from Japan who has zero friends and zero English at the time, New School was the perfect place for me. It’s not big. It’s only like 300 students or something like that. So comparing to Boston Berklee, that’s a huge school. New School was, if you spend there like one week, you would get to know everybody or you recognise everybody’s face and they do the same to you. So it’s a little bit more warm and family-like atmosphere to me. Plus, for me with zero English, you might have a tendency to just get together with Japanese friends. But it’s funny that school is not big, so everybody just jumps on your conversation. Even though when you want to have this conversation with Japanese friends, other guys are coming in like, “Hey, what’s up, guys? And you have to speak English. That environment forces you to just adjust to the culture or language, which was very helpful for me. And to be honest, if I think now, all the gigs I had after I graduated was 90% coming from my New School connections, so that’s most of it. You know what I’m saying? I learned a lot of arrangement skills, that was so important for my career. I did a lot of arrangements for José James, a lot of pop singers in Japan and a lot of artists in New York too. And as you said, if you were in New York, you just step out of the building, and then the whole city is that school. You go to any small clubs, even like tiny restaurants, a bar, some serious cats are playing.

You once said that you felt intimidated at a gig where you watched a young Robert Glasper and Keyon Harrold perform. You’ve since released a record on Blue Note, the same label that releases a lot of Robert Glasper albums, and indeed they have a very strong reputation for stellar jazz releases in general. I’m just curious, what advice would you give your younger self in that moment, if you could go back in time?
(Laughs) In the moment, I think I did the right thing. You’re talking about the story, that jam session where I witnessed a young Glasper and Keyon and stuff, right?

Yeah.
Okay. Yeah. Yeah. (Laughs) It was scary, man (laughs). I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know. I mean, man, if I had the balls to get up and play with them, yeah, why not? Go ahead (laughs). But I still remember how shocked I was when I saw them, so (laughs) I can’t really give out advice. I remember actually I recorded their jam session performance in my mini disc player, and I listened to that a million times, just trying to figure out what they were doing. But thanks to that night – I think that’s why I want to come to New York. It just felt at the level of New York and super lucky that I saw them. It was a random night at Cleopatra’s Needle, which is mecca of jam sessions in New York. At that time, I didn’t know them because they were like only 21 or something. I mean, of course, probably they were known, but I was visiting New York at the time, so I had zero information who they are. That even shocked me, like who are these guys? Why are they so good and I don’t know their names?

I would just say that New York is full of many incredible musicians, and even the likes of Charlie Parker felt intimidated at one point or another. I wouldn’t be too hard on yourself.
Right (laughs).

Thanks so much for your time today. I’ve got one final question for you.
Oh, thank you. Sure.

He invited me to just come exercise one time, and I went and he kicked my ass. I couldn’t move for two days.

If you could collaborate with any artist in any medium, whether it’s recorded music or painting, whatever you like, who would it be and what would you create?
Oh, wow. Any media. That’s great. Wow. Does it have to be like a certain individual or just a general or…

It’s completely up to you.
Okay. Um, damn. It’s-

I realise it’s a pretty tough question.
It is, but I love that because usually people ask me who is your dream band? That’s always like… no, but that’s a difficult question (laughs).

I think if you branch outside of your comfort zone, a lot of times you can produce amazing art. So yeah. Maybe you’d like to step into drawing with a fellow musician, or who knows. Photography?
Yeah. I do actually live painting shows sometimes in Japan. I have a lot of artist friends in New York, so that’s actually always in my head, doing my live shows. I don’t know, maybe… But now I feel like I want to see something connect with like sports, like maybe like basketball or something, you know? I play sometimes. I used to play a lot. I love how physical it is, but it’s always that rhythm, how they move and the sounds of the ball bouncing and stuff. So I don’t know. Not that I want to just perform with their sounds, but collaborate on making videos with some, I don’t know, other images, like people playing basketball and then maybe I play a little bit too (laughs) and make a music video or something.

Maybe you could play basketball and they play trumpet.
Yeah, yeah, yeah (laughs). Exactly. Also, one more thing I really want to do is, one of my fans is in Munich, Germany. He owns a boxing gym. And he invited me to just come exercise one time, and I went and he kicked my ass. I couldn’t move for two days. But he loved the music so much that he suggested to me why don’t I do a show on the ring, where you fight. I think that’s so fresh. Performance, the ring and take a video. That’s another thing I want to do when I visit them again.

That sounds fantastic. Miles Davis was a big boxing fan as well.
No doubt, yeah! A lot of musicians love boxing. Yeah.