Whether moving from Japan to the U.S. or navigating between the influences of jazz, soul, hip-hop, Afrobeat and electronica, trumpeter/composer Takuya Kuroda has never followed a straight path. On his fifth studio album and Concord Records debut, the aptly named Zigzagger, Kuroda darts between those wide-ranging interests with a funky swagger and an intensely swinging vigor. The deeply infectious album, due out October 7, 2016, finds the trumpeter snaking his way around the opposing poles of acoustic and electric, bristling grooves and blissed-out vibes, punchy brass and fluid synths, carving his own distinctive sonic path along the way.
“Life is sometimes not that easy, sometimes not so difficult, and it should never go straight,” Kuroda says. “It’s always zigzagging. So I put my soul and spirit into that word.”
Though it wasn’t intentional on Kuroda’s part, the title also can’t help but evoke The Sidewinder, Lee Morgan’s 1964 classic that became one of the touchstones of the then-burgeoning soul-jazz style. Morgan has been a major influence on Kuroda as a player and as a conceptualist, and with Zigzagger the 36-year-old trumpeter offers his own take on the state of the soul-jazz art more than half a century later. His music takes into account the electronic innovations of artists like Flying Lotus and J Dilla, while remaining true to the window-rattling funk and soul-stirring grooves which forcefully carry on the tradition.
Kuroda’s vision is realized with the help of his regular working band, most of them friends and collaborators for more than a decade since attending New York City’s New School together. They include trombonist Corey King, who also shows off his vocal chops on the simmering neo-soul tune “Do They Know;” bassist Rashaan Carter; drummer and percussionist Adam Jackson; and the band’s newest addition, keyboardist Takeshi Ohbayashi, who joined up in 2011. Three tracks bolster the band with master percussionist Keita Ogawa, who first crossed paths with Kuroda 20 years ago at jam sessions in their native Japan. Album closer “Think Twice” features the electrifying sounds of the popular Brooklyn Afrobeat band Antibalas.
Produced by Kuroda himself, Zigzagger is more purely an expression of his own distinctive approach. It maintains the unified style and infectious grooves of his earlier work, but mixes things up with more eclectic, shifting inspirations and perspectives. “When I write music I see a lot of elements and put them in different places, with different angles, a lot of counterpoint and strong melodies,” Kuroda explains. “It’s always easy to sing to, but has something like advanced changes underneath, kind of hidden so that people don’t get confused by the difficult elements. But it’s there. Musicians always tell me my music is easy to listen to but difficult to play.”
Ohbayashi’s burbling, singing keyboards open the album on “R.S.B.D.,” soon punctuated by Jackson’s forceful, driving rhythms before Kuroda and King burst in with the piquant horn melody. Electronica influences invade midway through the track, with post-production elements including sound effects and wordless vocals transforming the sound from the organic to the constructed, a dichotomy captured by the mash-up title, which stands for “Red Spade Black Diamond.”
The title track is built on the Afrobeat sounds that have become a key part of Kuroda’s music since he began working with the New York-based band Akoya Afrobeat nearly a decade ago. That sound recurs in full flourish when Antibalas joins on the Fela Kuti-inspired “Think Twice.” Both show off Kuroda’s gift for combining spiky jazz melodies with buoyant, compelling rhythms.
The title of “I Don’t Remember How It Began” tells the story of its own creation, which began as a heavily electronic Flying Lotus-inspired piece that eventually veered into a much more straight-ahead jazz direction once the band got a hold of it. The name also captures the sensation of getting lost in a powerhouse groove, so transporting that it’s hard to recall where it came from, as the band does in the second half of the cut.
Late, lamented hip-hop super-producer J Dilla is an obvious influence on “No Sign,” with its dragging, attitude-laden beat, while a more recent loss is called to mind in the sultry, clever funkiness of the Prince-esque “Thirteen.” Kuroda’s vulnerability shows in his playing on “Little Words,” which suggests that deep meaning can be found in terse, tough phrases. Finally, both the hip-hop driven “Actors” and the densely layered “Good Day Bad Habit” feature the dazzling percussion of Keita Ogawa. Both were originally written on Kuroda’s computer, with percussive sounds that he expected to be impossible to replicate in the studio. “Ogawa showed up with probably 50 percussion instruments and recreated all these impossible sounds with acoustic instruments,” Kuroda recalls. “He’s a crazy guy.”
Zigzagger is the latest stop along a serpentine path that began in Kobe, Japan, where Kuroda followed his trombonist brother into the local music scene. He moved to the U.S. and graduated from the New School’s Jazz and Contemporary Music program in 2006. It was during his time at the New School that Kuroda befriended José James, appearing on two of the singer’s albums and writing horn arrangements for his breakthrough album, 2013’s No Beginning No End.
James returned the favor by producing Kuroda’s 2014 Blue Note release Rising Son. That album followed three earlier independent releases: Bitter and High in 2006, Edge in 2011 and Six Aces in 2012. He’s become an active member of the diverse and vibrant NYC jazz scene, playing with the likes of José James, Akoya Afrobeat, Jesse Fischer, and others. Crossing into the world of hip-hop, he’s been playing with and writing arrangements for the legendary DJ Premier, half of the ground-breaking duo Gang Starr.