“Jazz Monthly Feature Interview” Dan Kuramoto
Smitty: Well, I’m totally excited about my next guest. He’s an incredible sax player, flute player, he’s just got an incredible band, and I totally dig their vibe. He has a great new record out. It’s called Little Tokyo. Representing the great band Hiroshima, please welcome the incredible Mr. Dan Kuramoto. Dan, how ya doin’, my friend?
Dan Kuramoto (DK): Good, good. It’s a real honor to get to talk to you and Jazz Monthly is so cool. We’re privileged to be, we like to think, part of Jazz Monthly and the whole movement toward music.
Smitty: Yes you are and thank you so much. What a nice thing to say. Wow.
DK: I love the site. It’s one of the few sites I actually check out.
Smitty: Oh, that’s great.
DK: ‘Cause you cover everything too. You cover jazz as a full dimension of music; Herbie (Hancock) and Chick (Corea), the people that we grew up loving. You cover it all and you really get an opportunity to see what’s going on with Jazz Monthly.
Smitty: Oh, man, thank you so much. I’ll have to send you a check. (Both laugh.)
DK: I’m just trying to keep it real because we love music and we love jazz from the standpoint of its multi-dimensional spectrum.
DK: And that it lacks conformity when it’s at its best. And to us, for example, there’s nobody more left wing than we are. In our almost 30-year career now, I don’t know how many record labels have asked us “Why do you have to have a koto?”
DK: No, I’m very serious. “Why do you have taiko? Why can’t you be more like this or more like that? Why can’t you do songs like this?” You know, and on and on. We came in from the point of view of loving people like Herbie and Chick and Miles (Davis) and (James) Moody, and all these people, everything they did was different.
Smitty: Very true.
DK: And everything was an exploration, or Pharoah Sanders or Rahsaan or all these different people, ‘cause they really shaped what we do now. There’s nothing that we’re doing now that remotely explores the ground that they’ve covered, and they are our guides on this musical path, and Yusef Lateef and on and on, Bill Evans, please, you know.
Smitty: Yes indeed.
DK: They expanded our hearts and minds and passions, and so we, in our own humble way, tried to follow in those traditions but in our way.
Smitty: Yes, and I think you couldn’t have said it any better. I mean, that was beautiful what you said because the whole concept of jazz or the whole foundation of jazz is improvisation, exploration, the many flavors, and it comes in, like you said, so many dimensions and it’s like a diamond with so many different facets and shades and colors, and I think you’re right on.
DK: Well, thank you. Our whole thing has always been left wing, left coast, you know what I mean? (Both laugh.) ‘Cause we’re an L.A. band, and I remember a few albums back we did a project called Urban World Music and it’s only because Robin Miller, who’s famous for the big Sade records as Sade’s producer, he produced that album with us. It was very flattering. He flew from England because he wanted to work with us ‘cause he said it would be interesting to work with the only band of its kind, like we created our own category, which is urban world music. It was very flattering to us and something that we like hanging our hat on because it’s like we grew up in the Inner City.
It was very multi-culturally driven, we’re very community and neighborhood driven, and yet we’ve had the opportunity to travel all over the world. How we mix that all together and how we play elements off each other, like practically the softest instrument you can listen to is a koto and there isn’t any louder acoustic instrument than a taiko, but we started with that premise that has that kind of yin and yang, man.
Smitty: Very cool.
DK: Let’s get the loudest thing and the softest thing, and that’s part of our Japanese heritage and culture, and now let’s build it into the mix that we grew up in, which is Los Angeles, I’m from East L.A., my whole background was Latin bands. June [Kuramoto] was born in Japan but she grew up in West L.A., which was totally an African American neighborhood, so then she was, although trained in classical koto music, she was always into R&B, all of us loved jazz, all of us loved….Jimi Hendrix is still the number one…he and Miles Davis are still the number one favorite musicians in our band.
Smitty: Oh, wow.
DK: Because they redefined things and you never hear a Hendrix track where you go “Well, yeah, I guess he wanted to get on Top 40 radio.”
Smitty: No. (Laughs.)
DK: You know what I’m saying? And you know we toured with Miles, right?
DK: Way back. So these are the kind of people that you look at and go “Ah, I get it. This is what music is. Let’s take a chance.” Let’s do the next thing. And so Little Tokyo is really about “Okay, it’s the next thing,” you know?
DK: We’re dipping and diving into uncharted waters for us and the through line is June. She is the greatest koto player and she’s the humblest and funniest koto player. (Both laugh.) And her art and her drive to want to express herself, to preserve an instrument that’s two thousand years old and make it relevant now really inspires and drives us forward. On this project we expanded the yang of the whole issue with the taikos because we have not only our young kid genius taiko drummer, Shoji Kameda, who’s really scary, the kid is just…he’s out of control. He went to Stanford, he was playing taiko, and he has already trained in Japan and trained under taiko master Kenny Endo, who played also on this record, who’s a friend of ours, and so we’ve got the great master and then we’ve got the student.
Smitty: Yes, great musician.
DK: And so like I love Latin rhythm and I obviously grew up in East L.A., my background being in Latin bands. That’s why I was the musical director of the play Zoot Suit, both the L.A. and the Broadway show, where it’s an all Latin music salsa-driven production and the music director was this Japanese American guy, but that’s the music I knew and I was considered “the guy” for that sort of thing, so I got to do that. But on this project, we did it based on Japanese rhythms that tie into other cultures, because most of taiko rhythm is very similar to African rhythm and very similar to Afro Latin music. So we just played around with that a lot and a lot of live recording and goofing around and trying out a lot of different ideas on some concept tunes and some really just basically nutty tunes as well.
Smitty: Well, I tell you, man, this new record Little Tokyo, I’m totally digging it.
DK: Really? I guess because we’re thinking it’s like no one’s gonna like it ‘cause it’s way outside of the Smooth Jazz realm on a lot of the tracks, although there’s a couple….and actually James Lloyd, a label mate and a buddy, he wrote us a song to try to bring us in a little bit, you know? (Both laugh.) So we did “Lanai,” which is really nice, but it’s like it’s sad because like today it’s dangerous to do a ballad.
DK: Because everything’s supposed to be sort of like one thing, and we’re driven by things that there’s just too much to dig into in life and life is too short not to explore it all, and so we’re motivated by that kind of impulse.
Smitty: Yes, and what you did with this record, the arrangements and the eclectic mix of the record, I think it’s beautiful.
DK: Oh, thanks.
Smitty: And as I listened to the entire record right out of the envelope, you might say….and it just flows. It’s like someone telling a story and each song is a continuation of the story.
DK: Wow. I swear to you, that was our whole goal and we were thinking, gee, I wonder if people think it’s too obtuse and it’s not gonna thread for them, but we really put a lot of labor into creating like an arc, you know, a kind of journey for people to go through.
Smitty: Yeah. I felt every bit of that, you know?
DK: Wow, Smitty, thanks. That’s a real honor.
Smitty: Oh, man, yeah. I’m loving this. And I got to see you guys in Vegas last month. That was cool.
DK: Yeah, oh yeah, which was very cool.
Smitty: At the City of Lights Jazz Festival. You both looked so fresh and ready to jam, and you had those great smiles. It was so cool to see you both.
DK: Great, no, it was great to see you, man, and good luck and blessings on your project, and may it grow and grow and grow.
Smitty: Yeah, thank you. Another thought that came to my mind as I was listening to the record is that it has such an inspirational energy to it because let’s face it, your band, you’ve got some stellar players.
DK: We’re good and blessed. Yeah, I mean, Danny Yamamoto, our drummer, when he was in high school he was playing in a jazz trio with Billy Childs.
DK: You know what I’m saying? When he was in high school.
DK: They went to high school together and they had a trio with Billy Childs and the bass player was Larry Kline who was a great record producer, great bass player and was married to Joni Mitchell for a long time.
DK: So he started from there and then you go to our bass player, Dean Cortez, who’s played on more than 300 records and movies, but he was the original bass player on Boz’s [Scaggs] world tour Lowdown, that was Dean.
DK: And he has played on Caldera, the all-time Latin fusion band, and on a million, million records, and then you got Kimo Cornwell, our keyboard player, who was with [Al] Jarreau for a long time and Frankie Beverly Live at the Universal Amph, that live recording, that double record set.
Smitty: Oh yeah, he’s a great player.
DK: Yeah, and played with Ronnie Laws and John Klemmer and everybody, and I don’t even need to talk about June, although she’s on Pirates of the Caribbean. I didn’t get to play on this one.
DK: I got to play on the first Pirates of the Caribbean. I played shakuhachi, the bamboo flute, on that.
Smitty: Yeah, that was cool.
DK: And then she got this one and I didn’t get on this one, so now I’m bitter. (Both laugh.) June does a lot of movie work and she’s played on so many people’s records that people don’t even really realize some of it like rock to Manhattan Transfer to Teddy Pendergrass; she’s played on almost 50 different records. Everyone just….they all trip out when they go “Oh, she was Taste of Honey. She was Sukiyaki with Janice Marie and them in Taste of Honey way back.”
Smitty: Yes indeed.
DK: And people go “Oh, yeah, that was June too, right?” And she’s covered all that ground and yet she’s played concerts with Ravi Shankar and all these heavyweight classical people too.
Smitty: Yeah. Well, when I see her play live and remember some of the bands she’s played with, I can see her background just by the way she moves. I mean, she’s got a rhythm and she’s so into her musicianship and she has the ultimate confidence in what she’s doing.
DK: Well, I don’t know if it’s confidence. It’s heart.
Smitty: Yeah, yeah.
DK: The moment she starts playing, it’s like she takes that two thousand years of koto music with her. She takes all the experiences with her and she takes growing up in the ghetto with her, so it’s heart and soul and it’s joy and she’s always smiling.
Smitty: Oh yeah.
DK: And so rich with all of that, and then all she does when she sits there is she gives and she gives, and it’s fresh every time because she’s always inventing, always being creative. She’s fearless that way and so that makes us….we gotta come up to the plate and swing. (Both laugh.) because there’s no middle ground with her because that’s the approach that she has, and I think that’s why audiences connect so much with her. That’s why we love making records, but for us it’s really the live thing where people can really connect because you have to see the taiko and the way it’s played, you have to see June and the koto and the things she does, you gotta hear Kimo and see how bad he is. He’s got that McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock thing because those are his big influences, right?
DK: Because 12 years playing with nothing but all the best R&B artists in the world and stuff, he can make it all flow together and that sort of thing, so that’s what makes it so much fun, and that’s why on this record we cover so many different kinds of things, like that’s why we kicked off with “Midnight Sun” because it’s an issue of like brothers and sisters are on this planet and “Midnight Sun” that June wrote is about the Middle East. It’s filled with Middle Eastern rhythms, but it’s Middle Eastern rhythms combined with like Japanese things and jazz things because it’s one planet.
DK: Another interesting song is “Hidden Times,” which is so mysterious and goes through all these different journeys that June wrote, but that’s because we were playing at the Pasadena Jazz Festival last year and we’re signing autographs after the show and this white woman comes up with this brother and they’re going like “Where’s June?” And then June comes to find out she has a whole ‘nother extended family from off of one of her uncles that she had never known that is primarily African American.
Smitty: Oh, wow.
DK: And she didn’t even know that until last year.
Smitty: How cool is that?
DK: Yeah, so that song “Hidden Times” is all about, she says, all about the things of all our cultures, about all our families, that are either not spoken, not passed along, but it’s there, the vibration is there, the spirits are all there, and it’s all those hidden times, those moments, that really connect us and it’s a beautiful kind of mystery of life kind of thing and, I mean, that song just takes me out.
DK: That’s one of those things where now I wish I had wrote that. (Both laugh.)
Smitty: It’s a great song too. I love it. Track 10.
DK: Oh, “Hiro Chill”?
Smitty: Yeah, man. I love that.
DK: You know, thank you for saying that because chill stations all over the world are adding that right now. We’ve been getting phenomenal feedback. And check this out: there’s a chill station, KSBR, in Orange County and the program director said that “You know, it’s one of the first authentic American chill tunes.”
Smitty: How ‘bout that?
DK: She says 99% of her programming comes out of Europe because there’s no actual American chill music.
DK: And they stream worldwide and she’s bragging on us because we’re an American band, which really—that really makes me happy.
Smitty: (Laughs.) Yeah, that’s one of my favorite tracks. Wow. How ‘bout that?
DK: Oh, thank you. I owe that all to my kid. My daughter, she lives in New York and I went back there to hang and we would hit the clubs and she’d go “You know, you guys gotta get into the chill scene.” She said “It’s not big in America like it is in Europe and all this other stuff,” but she says “It’s just perfect for what Hiroshima does.” It got me studying it and then that’s why I wrote that song.
Smitty: Hey, man, that’s quite an inspiration.
DK: Yeah, yeah, she was trying to hip me to it, which I immediately dug and she said “Look how you can combine all these things.”
DK: “Old school, new school,” she says “It’s all right there” and she said “Dad, that’s the stuff that you always tell me about, that you always have me listening to, all these different things,” and she said “Chill music allows all of that,” so it’s trippy and, of course, I would figure that you would catch onto that but, yeah, it’s trippy that you focused in on that because it’s a little bit of a different thing.
Smitty: Yeah, man. Well, you give her some props.
DK: Yeah, I will. Absolutely.
Smitty: Yeah, she’s an inspiration behind a hit, you know?
DK: Yeah, exactly.
Smitty: That’s very cool. Man, I love the artwork of the liner notes.
DK: Oh, thank you, thank you. That’s very, very kind of you. I worked very closely with our art director. I graduated in painting and drawing from Cal State University Long Beach, so my first love originally was art, so the poor art directors who work with me, you know, I have a different concept every time, I have a pile of sketches and (both laugh) I thought, you know, it’s time to combine some Warhol pop art vibe with what we’re gonna do, and so like if you look at the closeup photographs on the inner sleeve, they’re colored like those Andy Warhol kind of pop art photos.
Smitty: Yeah, that’s what it is. Now I get it.
DK: We went with a whole kind of fun pop art kind of whole thing, and actually the cover where it says Little Tokyo, that’s a street sign right on Third Street as you drive into Downtown L.A. and we just took a photograph of that.
Smitty: Oh, very cool, man. See, original stuff. Yeah, I like that.
DK: Well, man, that’s very cool. And, see, you would notice that. (Laughs.)
Smitty: Oh, yeah, man, I love it all because when I’m listening, I’m reading, I’m checking out everything, I just want the whole experience, and that’s old school when you think about it because back when we had the LPs, people talked about it all the time, because the LP sleeve was an experience in itself.
DK: Oh yeah. Well, thank you. What we want really to do is to create a musical community again that is exciting and dynamic. And I think where it’s gonna be is really with people like you, I think, because I don’t think there’s even gonna be CDs three years from now, really. It’s all gonna be downloads. There’s gonna be the dynamic and visionaries of people who are running sites that expand the mind. Because the e-packages and e-cards that can go out now really could be like albums in a different way, but they can have much more information than you can put on a CD and can be artistic on a lotta different levels, not just sound.
DK: But like you say, the package, the artwork and so forth. We can sorta expand it again.
Smitty: Yeah, then you get into movement with video and all of those kinds of things.
DK: Exactly. In fact, if you’d like, we just finished a video for performing arts.
Smitty: Oh, cool.
DK: And it’s just six-minutes from when we do a performing arts show, but it shows when we use classical Japanese dancers with us dancing to our music, when we have the stunning erhu player. Karen Hwa-Chee Han, who plays the Chinese violin, which is Track 8, I believe, “Quan Yin.” She’s playing on that. But she got to play on Pirates of the Caribbean too, come to think of it. If you want, I can send you that DVD.
Smitty: Oh, man, I would love to check it out. Now, the DVD, is it for sale?
DK: No, no, no, it’s really for promoters. We’re gonna put it on our Web site. It’s for performing arts venues so they can see what we do.
DK: It’s our music, but it also reflects embracing different visuals like classical dance.
Smitty: Oh, very cool. Yeah, please.
DK: And as I say, this great Chinese musician, or Richie [Gajate] Garcia, the percussionist who plays with us who last year was voted the number one percussionist in the world, and it’s just combining all these different flavors in a performing arts setting, which we really love to do.
DK: But if you’d like to just check it out, I’ll send you one.
Smitty: Oh, I’d love to see it.
DK: Oh, fine.
Smitty: Yeah, very cool. Dan, I highly recommend this record. I think your fans will love this record, I think not only jazz fans, but fans of music in general because it’s just great music. It just falls under so many elements and I just love that whole eclectic mix of music and I think people enjoy that. They don’t wanna hear the same thing over and over, they don’t wanna hear the same kind of song all the time, and I think you guys nailed it with this record.
DK: Well, Smitty, man, what can I say? All I can say is that we came into music because of the passion and inspiration it had given us just growing up listening, being enriched by it, and it’s our time to try to do it our small way, and I mean this in a very small way, to give back some inspiration to folks so they can listen and go on a journey.
DK: That hopefully it’s fresh and it’s a journey that hits the heart, but to me there’s a lot on this record that’s fun. It’s also one of my most fun records.
Smitty: Yes. Now, the record comes out….
DK: May 22nd.
Smitty: All right. And you guys are lining up some tour dates and all that good stuff?
DK: Yeah, we’re doing that now. We’re trying to figure out our East Coast tour and stuff like that, but our managers and agents work on that.
Smitty: Right, and people can keep up with where you guys are and what you’re doing on your Web site, right?
DK: Yeah, which is www.hiroshimamusic.com.
Smitty: All right.
DK: Yeah, and actually we’re just finishing up, so if people are interested in this record, there’s stories about every song; why we wrote it and the whole nine behind all of that. And what inspired us and things like that, and all of that will be forthcoming on the site within the next two weeks.
Smitty: Very cool, man, and I love that category you guys got, “Cool Stuff” on your site. You’ve got some recipes. I remember that. I always look at those recipes, man.
DK: Oh yeah, I’m not saying that it’s the world’s greatest, but our band is a family. Every time we get together to rehearse, whatever it is, sit around, have a meal, sit at the table together and eat and talk. You know what I’m saying? You know that vibe?
Smitty: I do.
DK: I think that’s real, real important. The recipes on the site, they’ve been heavy tested by this band.
DK: This band has been known to, without exaggerating, do tour routing based on places we like to eat.
Smitty: (Laughs.) You know what? That’s my kind of band.
DK: That’s what I’m talking about. “Red Beans and Rice,” we’re not joking, okay? In fact, yeah, and you go to Crescent City, we like to go to Mother’s. You name the city, we got a joint.
DK: Or a joint or two.
DK: Sometimes we go to Los Barrios, you know what I mean? We got our spots in every city. So all I’m saying is all our recipes are for real down and they’ve been cooked many times and tested out by the band or they don’t get on the Web site.
Smitty: (Laughs.) They’re proven effective if they’re on the site, huh?
DK: (Laughs.) At least by us, anyway.
Smitty: Well, that’s cool, man, because not everybody puts stuff like that on there. It’s food, you know? And that’s something we all identify with, especially if it’s good food, it’s great recipes. And I’m like you. When I go into a city, I’m looking for the good restaurants and if it’s good, I’m coming back.
DK: Thank you! (Laughs.) It’s like Terry Steele, who had sung with us until the last two records, because he’s doing this Remembering Luther, the musical.
DK: Our last rehearsal he called me and said “Man, I need some turkey chili.” (Both laugh.) And plus everybody who’s been in the band is family, so nobody ever leaves altogether. Everyone always comes back. So Terry still does shows with us or even if he’s not announced he’ll pop in on the show or stuff like that and it’s all family. I mean, it’s literally “I need to come back and see the family and I need me some turkey chili.” (Both laugh.) So it’s a band that plays music on their stomach. (Both laugh.)
Smitty: That is so cool, man. You’ve got a lot of other great things on your site. I like that whole page on “From the Road.” There’s photos and all kinds of good things. It talks about where you guys have been and what you’re up to. It’s a great site.
DK: Oh, thank you. Like I say, by the beginning of June we’re gonna update it about 70% ‘cause it occurred to us that we took about 500 shots when we were in South Africa and there aren’t any on the Web site. We’re gonna update it, but thanks for mentioning our site because it’s our way to dialogue with folks who happen to like our particular kind of music.
Smitty: Yeah. Absolutely, my friend. Well, Dan, once again, I want to congratulate you and thank you for this great record that we all can enjoy and look forward to everyone getting their copy and I look forward to seeing you guys on the road again too.
DK: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, no, absolutely, absolutely, and we hope to get out and really have a chance to kind of explore with folks our music because we know it’s a little different and we know that different is not exactly in right now, but we’re committed to doing it because, like I say, that’s what we came in on.
Smitty: Absolutely, my friend.
DK: And we believe that that’s what we were put on the planet for, and we’ve been so blessed because we’ve gone, let’s see now, 27 years and always had a record deal, always had the opportunity to tour, and you just saw the band. I mean, this band is fresher and more energetic than ever.
Smitty: Yeah, yeah.
DK: because we’re so blessed and we have such a great time and our audiences are so giving to us. Our audiences inspire us.
Smitty: Yes, man oh man, and that’s a cool thing, it really is. All right, we’ve been talking with the great Dan Kuramoto, here representing Hiroshima, their great new record, it’s called Little Tokyo. Ladies and gentlemen, I highly recommend this record. Dan, thanks again so much and best of everything with the record and your career.
DK: Thank you. We wish everyone peace and joy.
Baldwin “Smitty” Smith
For More Information Visit www.hiroshimamusic.com and www.headsup.com
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