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.