In the mid-70s, shortly after forming the L.A. based, East Meets West jazz ensemble Hiroshima but years before releasing its self-titled Arista debut in 1979, Dan Kuramoto remembers playing in a Top 40 band at the hotspot Humperdincks in Hermosa Beach. After packing his gear every night, he gravitated immediately down the block to listen outside the door of The Lighthouse, a legendary club for over 30 years where jazz was blowing heavy at all hours.
This could seem like an insignificant memory in light of his band’s incredible success over the past quarter century — two gold records, three million albums sold, Emmy and Grammy nominations, a Soul Train Award for Best Jazz Album (1987’s Go) and numerous toppings of the Billboard Contemporary Jazz chart.
And yet, “The Lighthouse,” a moody, straight-ahead flavored first take tune featuring Kuramoto’s hearty tenor and Kimo Cornwell’s shimmering piano improvisations, is the perfect starting point for the deeper spiritual inspirations behind Obon, Hiroshima’s 15th release and second for Heads Up.
June Kuramoto, the band’s koto player and the only member born in Japan, describes Obon (a Buddhist term) as “respecting and honoring ancestors, grandparents, parents, children… expanding to all life, past and present.” There are Obon festivals in Japan and even in Los Angeles’ Japanese community which blend reverence and gratitude with heavy-partying celebrations — much like any of the thousands of shows Hiroshima has done over the years. In addition to marking 25 years in the recording business, the band also wanted the music to acknowledge the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Japanese after World War II.
“People who know the traditions ask why we’re so upbeat if we’re observing something so solemn,” says Kuramoto. “Sometimes, in order to appreciate things with a grateful heart, you have to get up and dance. All the Obons in Japan have dancing. It’s a religious festival about appreciating the past but with the vision of moving forward. It gives us a full sense of grasping life. It seemed like an exciting place for a starting concept. The idea of any band staying together a quarter century is pretty heavy, but we see it as a new beginning. It’s like drawing a line in the sand. ‘Here we are, let’s see what happens next.’”
For Kuramoto, part of that legacy is acknowledging that for all their commercial success, Hiroshima’s mixture of trad jazz and light pop with such traditional Asian sounds as the koto, shakuhachi flute and the booming taiko drum — which, as played by twenty something wunderkind and band newcomer Shoji Kameda, creates a dramatic and ominous underscore to the koto and flute melody on “Obon Two-Five” — goes completely against the grain of today’s more conservative smooth jazz playlists. Hiroshima has softened that effect (and achieved much of their airplay success) by having a variety of lead vocalists — the latest one was Terry Steele — but Obon is their first all-instrumental recording.
Other odd, decidedly off the beaten path excursions on Obon include “Swiss Ming,” which begins with a gong and features Kuramoto paying homage to one of his icons, Eddie Harris, by filtering his sax into a lower register using a pitch shifter; “Atomic Café,” a blend of old school soul-jazz and modern hip-hop scratches dedicated to L.A.’ Japantown’s “best noodles in town” joint; and the swinging, koto and sax-driven slow jam “Pharoah,” inspired by the legendary Mr. Sanders.
In tune with the theme of the album, the saxophonist is grateful for the band’s extremely loyal following, which stays dedicated through all the wanderlust and cultural juxtapositions.
“They let us get away with anything,” Kuramoto says. “Last night we played at The Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia, and despite it being a weeknight with bad weather, we had a sellout. Having no vocalist has been challenging and liberating at the same time. It’s allowed us to explore new, less safe territory. During the show, we played the first song from our first album called ‘Lion Dance,’ and when we jokingly offered a free CD to the first person who could name it, 20 people stood up and yelled it out! It was amazing. I think they respond to our philosophy that if you have a lot of ideas and like to play, this is the band for you. There’s never been a true category for what we do, and we’re very comfortable with that fearless approach now.”
After 15 years, Nelson Rangell is still motivated by what one young critic said after seeing his performance at the Catalina Island Jazz Trax Festival — that the then upstart saxophonist and flutist would be the next contemporary jazz superstar. Though that hasn’t quite happened, Rangell has built a strong catalog with releases on numerous labels, most of which have charted and gotten great reviews. Perhaps the problem is that these labels tried too hard to limit the depth of his talents and affinity for diverse styles into a world overcrowded with more fashionable saxmen whose pop gems were slightly catchier to the ear.
His new deal with Koch Records, which began with last year’s beautifully produced, stylistically varied All I Hope For Christmas, may just change all that. It’s up to the jazz gods (and radio promoters and marketing execs) whether or not the old prediction comes true, but with My American Songbook, Volume 1, Rangell has created a project with some familiar tunes yet unlimited horizons exploring territory beyond any of his previous commercially defined confines.
Redefining classics familiar (Leonard Bernstein’s “America,” Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing,” Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate To The Wind,” Earth Wind & Fire’s “That’s The Way of the World”) and lesser known (the traditional “Billy Boy,” once recorded by Miles Davis), Rangell’s labor of love is a majestic undertaking that reflects his deep love for jazz (straight-ahead and smooth), pop, Latin and R&B. More importantly, aside from the sax, he is featured on flute and piccolo (most explosively on the trad-jazz piece “Freda,” with the help of Russell Ferrante and Jimmy Haslip) and even whistles his way through Hampton Hawes’ “Sonora,” a longtime staple of his live shows.
“My fans have called it ‘the whistle tune’ for years and wondered when I’d get around to recording it,” he says. “So here it is. In a performance long ago in a noisy club, instead of playing a piccolo solo, I simply whistled. A strong human connection was made with audiences ever since, and I thought its vulnerability fit in perfectly on an album which captures a truer essence of me and is also designed to express the diversity of American society along with the common humanity of what we share with the world. Plus, as the idea of ‘Volume 1’ indicates, there are so many great songs which capture the American experience.
“The ideals our country is based on are broad, humanitarian ideals than extend beyond one country or tribe,” Rangell adds. “The music touches upon my love for America but extends to show that we are also citizens of the world and that musically, our nation is a great melting pot. There are so many intense and important things happening here that not only affect us but also the global community. I hope to strike a positive tone in all this. With my one original, ‘Don’t Forget Those Forgotten,’ I’m saying it’s only an illusion that any of us are greater or lesser than anyone else. We always have to get back to that humanitarian thread that defines the best in us.”
1) Tobaj (Tobaj Music) – The Portland based singer/guitarist blends easy and romantic vocals in Spanish and English with spirited acoustic accompaniment that tackles numerous genres from flamenco to samba. The smoldering seduction is broken up, joyously, by the Santana-like electric fire of “Sensacional.”
2) Acoustic Alchemy, American English (Higher Octave)
3) Kat Parsons, No Will Power (Kat Parsons Music)
4) Saucy Monky, Turbulence (429 Records)
5) Curtis Stigers, I Think It’s Going to Rain Today (Concord Jazz)
New and Noteworthy
1) Praful, Pyramid In Your Backyard (Rendezvous)
2) Down to the Bone, Spread Love Like Wildfire (Narada Jazz)
3) Richard Elliot, MetroBlue (Artizen Music Group)
4) Lee Ritenour, OverTime (Peak Records)
5) The Rippingtons, Wild Card (Peak Records)