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Interview: Saxophonist Shuhei Kokuryo
(Published: March 17, 2019)

Q: What was your introduction to music? How old were you, and how did it affect you?

A: I started playing the piano at the age of six and began learning how to play the saxophone when I joined the high school Wind Orchestra in 2005. I practiced Kendo (Japanese fencing) at around the same time I started playing piano in junior high school, and injured myself. Nonetheless, when I got to high school, I joined a music club and assumed I'd play piano. As it turned out, I didn't even realize the Wind Orchestra doesn't usually include a piano part, and they only had a spot for me to play baritone saxophone. That is how I first met the saxophone when I was 15 years old. I didn't even know what a saxophone looked like before that. It just caught my heart so quickly, and it was so much fun to play. The band director/teacher chose me to be a part leader, section leader, and band director (as a student) later. That experience taught me how to manage people and work in a large group.

The band director had studied and worked in America before as a classical trumpeter, so guess I was influenced by him to get interested in the U.S. music scene. However, classical saxophone is not that popular in America. So, I didn't picture myself to going to America to study.

Besides studying business at the university in Nagoya, I started playing in big band (mainly), wind orchestra, rock band, and performed many different genres of music. I became a band director and manager of the big band when I was a junior at university, and restructured the management of the band to improve their performance. Later on, my interest in jazz deepened after I heard Charlie Parker's recordings. I got a BA in Business in 2012 and started preparing for my move to America (I was 21 yrs old.) It took about a year and a few months to plan everything.

I moved to Texas in 2013 to study English and saxophone at the University of North Texas. After one year of studying in Texas, I moved to New York to further immerse myself in the Jazz scene, and to learn from internationally well-known Jazz saxophone players such as Seamus Blake. Those experiences affected my style and helped me grow and learn to compose the original songs which are recorded on the first album for sure.

Q: Did you grow up in a musical environment?

A: Actually, not at all. My parents don't play any instruments. They just encouraged me to start doing both sports and music when I was 6 years old. They like listening to music though, especially my mother. She has her own taste, and is open to any type of music, not just specific genres.
Q: What styles of music had the greatest impact on you creatively?
A: This is a tough question. There are many types of music which have taught me different things, like from pre-bop jazz all the way up to todays' music, and even including much older, classical music, like Bach. I would like to say that I was most influenced by Dexter Gordon (sadly gone now) and Seamus Blake (alive and well). Their sounds are huge, fat, and tremendously beautiful in a way that that still touches my heart. Musicians who have their own distinctive styles have influenced me creatively. I like modern jazz such as hard bop, modal, and contemporary jazz like today's music especially what's being played in the scene in NYC.
Great live music has had a big impact on me and influenced my playing. When I listen to recordings/cds, my favorites are always live recordings. Live music has something special, which is hard to explain in words. During playing, musicians influence each other so much creatively, which makes for a great moment. When I see a great gig, it makes me want to go back home ASAP to compose songs. Live records can include studio recordings, when the musicians play together in real time. When I recorded my album, every musician poured his heart and love into my music. I really appreciate their kindness in offering me help in countless ways. Their support helps me to grow creatively. I hope you can tell it from the recording.

Q: How would you describe your musical style?

A: This is also a hard question to answer.

Playing: I would say that my style is lyrical, but not too talky, speaking to the audience with honesty through improvising melodic lines. When I received the Presser award during my time at CCNY, one of my mentors, Dan Carillo, who also recorded on my album, offered me super kind words: "Your work ethic, dedication, respectfulness and humility are characteristics that have been noticed by the faculty and the Presser is awarded in part to recognize these traits."
Sometimes I feel I'm not good enough to play with other musicians in a professional situation, so I always keep reminding myself to be grateful I'm given the opportunities I have. I have asked some people/friends why they called me to play with them, and they said because I brought a humility.
Live music happens and is made between people and by people. I believe that sound reveals the musician, and that honesty makes the moment and music. Even though we might have different cultures, colors, and religions, it doesn't matter. We all are same, human beings, so we should respect each other the same through our music-making. Maybe some of that thinking inspires my musical style.

For composition:

I have own color especially in my compositions. Sometimes I show and share new tunes with friends to ask for comments, and they usually say " it sounds like Shuhei." That's really important to me. Of course, I want to sound like Dexter or Seamus, but I cannot. They are too good. haha Also, eventually, I have to be me, not someone else.
I can write / finish composing songs only when I have strong ideas or specific motifs (so far.) Because I picture scenes in my mind, I usually tell the audience what I imagined when I wrote it. I get good comments on each song, and the audiences' favorites usually vary. I dedicated "illuminate", which is played on an EWI, to my grandmother, who passed away. I've been told that it touched the hearts of others who have had the same experience of losing a loved one. The other original song, "Mynority," was composed to express my experiences around coming to America. I was struggling with issues around racism at the time, and some audiences / friends have asked me if I was writing about those issues even before I told them that story. I can sense they understood because they've had similar experiences.

I like to think my musical style permits me to communicate something special through music.

Q: What are your goals, artistically speaking?

A: If I can keep composing and playing music during my life for as long as I can, what a beautiful life that would be.
I am very fortunate to have met many nice people who surround and support me. I don't mean they are nice because they support me or my friends. They are just nice. I'm also not talking about only people in music scene, it's more general. People cannot live all by ourselves, we need relationships somehow. I can keep being creative when I am happy, face difficulties, and spend time with people. Also, staying healthy is one of the most important things, absolutely vital if you want to keep working and playing. My great mentor, Steve Wilson, told me that eating well and sleeping well are really important.

Finally, I don't want to stop looking up. What a wonderful thing it is that I have something to strive towards. That may makes my life more difficult, but it also makes my life better. Thus, even if I had a situation which I cannot deal with, these are my goals - that I keep being creative, writing tunes and creating music and savor each moment with people as long as I can. Ultimately, people would be nicer each other, and one day the world will become one without war

Q: When did you decide to be a musician, and what fueled this passion?

A: As I talked about a little on the first question, besides studying business at the university in Nagoya, I was playing in big band, wind orchestra, rock band, and performed many different genres of music. I later became more interested in Jazz after I heard Charlie Parker's recordings. I felt as if I was struck by lightning. That moment made me want to visit to NYC. Thus, when I was a junior at University in Japan, I visited NYC myself during spring semester. I had never been to the U.S. before, so every experience was new and fresh. It was really fun. I faced so many problems, but those experiences were important, too.
I went to listen to the NY philharmonic orchestra, and I was so impressed by their playing. So I decided to be an audience instead of being a player. However, after I went to jazz clubs, that changed everything. Those shows had me so excited, and at the same time I got so frustrated asking myself why I'm sitting in a seat. I wanted to play music like them!! When I was back in Japan, I started preparing for my move to America. I spent about a year and few months, and these time were tough. Because of my English proficiency test was not enough good, I had failed auditions many times. But I couldn't give it up to study music in the U.S.. I was really fueled by good music and my love for the saxophone.

Finally, I moved to Texas in the year 2013 to study English and saxophone at the University of North Texas. After one year of studying in Texas, I moved to New York to further immerse myself in the local Jazz scene, and to learn from well-known international Jazz saxophone players such as Seamus Blake.

I was always fueled by my goals. Each goal had to be not impossible, but a little difficult. Otherwise, I could lose my way when I achieved a target. When I made it to a goal, I already had the next goal in mind. I just wanted to play saxophone better and better, like the people whom I admire. There are tons of great saxophonists and musicians!

Q: What artists influenced you the most growing up?

A: If I talk about all of the great saxophonists, it would be too much, so please let me talk about tenor people. I love to hear tenor saxophonists who have a beautiful, fat, huge sound. There are a lot of legendary people, including Hawkins, Webster, Young, Coltrane, Rollins, Turrentine, Getz, Mobley, Berg, Brecker, and more.... I can't list them all here. However, I would say that Dexter Gordon is the person who I've been influenced by the most. His sound is always great. I never get tired of listening to it. His sound projects so beautifully - "huge" doesn't always mean just volume.

The sound is the most important thing when people describe you. Sound tells the audience how you've spent your life, how you approach your music and your instrument. Of course, the rhythm is also important, for sure. Fortunately, I've been able to play many types of music with people who came from different countries. Rhythm might be the most important component to the feel of music, and every country has its own color, including Japan. There is no good or bad, it's just important to be aware of difference. People should respect each other anytime, and it's not only about music. However, I believe sound always contains some common element between people and countries. Good sound is always good, for sure. If I have a beautiful sound, I believe I can play any type of music. Actually, that's my goal. People tend to sort music by genres, of course sometimes it's useful. But, there is always good music or not, and I want to be a good saxophonist, not only a jazz saxophonist.

I was also influenced by many contemporary musicians (I list only tenor here), like Bob Mintzer, Chris Potter, Joshua Redman, Ben Wendel, Joel Frahm, Jason Rigby, Dayna Stephens, Donny McCaslin, Gary Thomas and more. However, my mentor, Seamus Blake, is the person who's influenced me, and influenced my sound, most of all. The music of Seamus Blake resonated with me from the moment I first heard him play as a guest artist at the University of North Texas. I decided to move to New York City in the hopes of taking lessons from him. Despite his busy schedule, he was kind enough to share his time and music with me. I feel fortunate to have collaborated with Seamus to compose and perform the song "Mirage" on this album. I love his music, style, and playing, but above all, it's about his sound. When Seamus plays jazz or pop or classical music like Bach, he always sounds like Seamus Blake - it's him. Also, what he shared with me was not only about music - he shared his life and experiences during and outside of private lessons.  The other teachers who are on the album, Steve Wilson / Dan Carillo / Adam Nussbaum, and others were so kind to share their experiences, as well. I felt that, even though they are teachers, they are trying with their gentle and kind support to pull me up to talk and play as an equal at their level. Of course sometimes they are strict.haha I've never forgotten to appreciate them. Everyday I realize, like "oh that's what he was talking about, and what it means" from what my mentors taught me. They still teach me a lot in my mind. Those experiences influence the musician I want to be into the future.

Q: How have you evolved creatively?

A: I want to keep listening to music as long as I can, and meeting new people, visiting new places, evolving creatively. I don't like to force myself to keep listening and practicing too much, so if I want to take a break, I just walk around, cook, and go somewhere else in my mind.
I think of music as something made by living things, like animals in nature, and human beings. However, there are so many "sounds" if you go outside, which may not be music, but inspire music-making. Like sound from cars, construction, sound from people living their lives. Sometimes I get hints and tips from the sound and rhythm to compose new music and have new ideas to improvise. When birds sing, or I hear the sound of leaves rustling in the wind, there is already music. Going to new places, eating new foods, and meeting people always gives me more insight and a broader scope. Sometimes I fall into a slump and it is hard to keep being there, but I just wait and try being creative as long as I can. I believe, after I overcome the difficulties, I can achieve something big.

These approaches help me evolve my creativity, but the most important element is listening, both to my favorite music and to new music I've never heard before.

More Information: http://shuheikokuryomusic.com


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