Jazzmonthly.com is pleased to welcome Dan Kuramoto, co-founder and leader of the groundbreaking band Hiroshima, the only Asian-American group to ever receive a Grammy nomination. Since forming in 1974 and making their recording debut five years later, their sound and vision reflects a distinctive One World philosophy which blends Asian and North American cultures.
Their 2009 CD Legacy, nominated for a Best Pop Instrumental Album Grammy, reflects a convergence of East and West that is as powerful and relevant now as it was 37 years ago when Kuramoto (who plays sax, flute and the shakuhachi) and koto great June Kuramoto joined musical forces to create the band. Their new album Departure is their first independent release without a major record label.
Your last album Legacy and current Departure have titles that seem to indicate larger concepts and themes. Can you elaborate on what those are?
DK: Legacy was designed as a celebration of our 30 years in recording industry. We had hoped to go back and create a “Best Of” collection that was different from the type record labels slap together after a band leaves a label. Dave Love, who was President of Heads Up Records at the time, suggested it. The idea can be abstract when your catalog goes back three decades, and we spent a lot of time trying to narrow down our favorites. At one point we thought about a double CD, but in this digital era that seems a little ambitious. Then we asked fans on our website to submit their favorites and the diversity was overwhelming. We ultimately decided to revisit songs from our first decade. What made it fun was that we essentially did it live in the studio. I overdubbed some of my parts, but there was a whole lot of live playing going on. It was fun to experience the arc of our personal journey and take songs we hadn’t played for many years and replug them into the vibe we have now. We asked ourselves where these songs came from, and tried to recapture their original essence. It was like a spiral where you hit the same point again even though you’re in a different place otherwise.
Departure revisits two other favorites, “Thousand Cranes” and “One Wish.” It reflects where we are in an industry that is very different today than it was back in 1979. It’s bizarre to have no record stores and such a shrinking radio market, but it’s a good chance for artists like us to kind of replant, re-bloom and remind ourselves why we started out doing this in the first place. When our contract was up, we decided to go fully independent and release the album by ourselves. There’s a liberating feeling in gaining control of your music and career like this, even though it’s largely uncharted territory. But the good news is that, though the marketplace has changed, our music isn’t going away. For us, it begins spiritually. We like the idea Dizzy Gillespie once said, that music is in the notes you don’t play. For us, it’s time for “Mah,” a word for the space between the notes. We’re excited about this new direction.
JazzMonthly: What was it like revisiting some of your earlier songs and how did you change them for that modern recording? While making these albums, did you think about what the band’s legacy in music is?
DK: It was a powerful experience reconnecting with these songs, some of which were more than 30 yrs old and many of which were written before we got a record deal. It’s great to look back as we did on Legacy, but the idea behind Departure is that we’re looking ahead on a truly grass roots level, which is always exciting for bands, whether they’re first starting out or together as long as we have been. Ask any band, and they’ll tell you the most amazing time is the garage band days – because you have no idea what will happen next! That’s where we are again. We’re also celebrating chemistry and continuity, because (bassist) Dean Cortez has been with us since the beginning and (keyboardist) Kimo Cornwell has been with Hiroshima since the mid-80s. I love our sense of community as artists and the way we have shared this vision. We’re carrying the Legacy forward now.
There was a tremendous energy in revisiting these songs, and we approached them from an organic world perspective. With Thousand Cranes, we added an African element and a voice choir for an emotional context that feels like “now.” “One Wish” was a huge pop hit and originally had an R&B/jazzy flavor. So this time we did it as an acoustic trio, recording the koto in a home studio with a mic and no reverb, and adding my alto flute and Kimo’s piano. On Legacy, we took the song “Another Place,” which was originally three minutes long, and made it nine minutes to reflect the way it had grown when we perform it live. It’s got amazing solos by June and Kimo. When I think of what our legacy is, I defer to Robin Miller, a British producer who has worked with Sade and Eric Clapton but wanted to work with us. He said it must be fascinating to be the only ones to do what you do. He called our music ‘Urban World Music.”