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Nowadays, putting together a jazz festival means embracing musical diversity — the word "jazz" itself has become an umbrella term for many genres, from the sophisticated works of Wynton Marsalis to the Brazilian bossa nova of Rosa Passos and the experimentation of Chick Corea.
The talent at this year's Houston International Jazz Festival could not be more diverse. The lineup brings together a handful of local acts like Angel Lane Brass Band (known for their jazz funerals) with the likes of American Idol R&B singer Ruben Studdard and the Los Angeles-based Hiroshima, which blends elements of traditional Japanese music and contemporary West Coast jazz.
Formed almost 30 years ago by saxophonist Dan Kuramoto and his then wife, master koto player June Kuramoto (the national instrument of Japan, the koto is a zither-like 13-stringed instrument), the six-piece Hiroshima also incorporates elements of Latin and Brazilian music, funk and other sonic elements.
Over the phone from Los Angeles, Dan Kuramoto says Hiroshima's sound has also been influenced by Miles Davis (with whom the group toured in the early '90s), Tito Puente and Jimi Hendrix. His own exposure to vastly different sounds in close proximity dates back to his childhood.
"I was born in East L.A., and during the day I heard my parents' Japanese records," Kuramoto says. "There were three salsa clubs in the vicinity, and I heard that music when I'd go to sleep at night."
When Hiroshima started out in the early '80s, many people didn't think it had much of a future. After all, this was well before world music got its own section in the record store.
"People remarked that Japanese were nothing but gardeners back then," recalls Kuramoto. "There were label memos betting that we were set out to fail within a year."
Hiroshima was ultimately vindicated when 1980's Odori LP (its second) ultimately moved more than 100,000 units thanks to airplay from black radio stations. Back then, recalls Kuramoto, such stations "were actually run by African Americans, not the [corporate] model that passes for black radio today."
Live, Hiroshima presents a high-energy show that goes from simple koto-based melodies to far more intricate arrangements. Puerto Rican-born drummer Dean Cortez and taiko (Japanese drum) player Shoji Kameda have considerable chemistry together, and their shared drum solo — usually during an encore or right before the end of the main set — is highly memorable.
However, Hiroshima's true star (though never billed as such) is June Kuramoto, whose instrument is always the centerpiece of the group's sound. "June is one of the best koto players in the world," says Dan. "She's played with many different people, and has been a featured musician in many films and TV shows."
For the band's Houston appearance, Kuramoto says Hiroshima will focus on material from its new CD, Little Tokyo (a reference to the famed Japanese neighborhood in Los Angeles), sprinkling in audience favorites and commentary on the group's mixed cultural heritage. Although jazz's audience has been shrinking for years, Kuramoto believes festivals like this weekend's help give the music a shot in the arm.
"Right now, the industry is down as a whole, but there is more jazz for younger people these days," he says.
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