Solo recitals can be the most vulnerable format, especially for guitarists. The balancing act of approximating an ensemble on one instrument and making the music varied and interesting is no task for a dilettante.
The 37-year-old guitarist Goh Kurosawa plays technically difficult and aurally demanding guitar music that he somehow performs with the air of a camp counselor strumming simple folk tunes. Alternate tunings, Japanese scales, odd meters, percussive elements, finger picking and tapping the strings over the fret board with two hands — playing rhythm and sounding chords at the same time — are some of his musical elements. In Kurosawa's hands it all looks easy.
Maybe it's the humble and friendly way that he engages his audiences, the Flamenco-like warmth of his music, or maybe it's the off-hand way he executes. Call him a modest virtuoso. He'll bring his one-man musical extravaganza to Altadena's Coffee Gallery Backstage Saturday afternoon.
Kurosawa spent his first 16 years in the Gunma prefecture of Japan's Honshu Island. His family then followed his father, a professional, to the U.S. West Coast. Equally at home in America and Japan, Kurosawa proclaims himself a "bicultural traveler; at home in both places."
That creative ambidexterity has resulted in something new for him. He never sang before 2011, but the Tohoku 9.0 earthquake that year jostled his molecules. "I visited Sendai," he recalls, "where the earthquake and nuclear meltdown happened. I heard Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah' by Jeff Buckley and the song helped me process the shock. I sing that song now because I don't want to forget how I felt that day."
"Hallelujah," Cohen's quasi-spiritual anthem has been prolifically covered by hundreds of artists around the world, and it appears on Kurosawa's new album, "Blue Quiet Sound" (Onigawara).
Kurosawa's just returned from a tour of Japan and the Pacific Northwest, which clarifies part of his mission. "Japanese people are not always very open," he believes. "They love American culture but often forget about Japanese culture and history. I see so much beauty in Japan, and I want Japanese people to see how good we are."
Kurosawa also plays electrically — most notably in the Sharp Three trio he founded with his bassist brother Kai. Pedal distortions and loud sound formations contrast decisively with his acoustic guitar playing. Chuck van Haecke was not the band's first drummer and he underwent a musical baptism of fire. "At our first jam," he recounts, from Florida, "Goh dropped a chart on my stand and casually said, 'It's in 11-over-eight… pretty straight ahead.' Right! I struggled with it but they were very encouraging and gave me time to get it together at home."
"Goh improvises a lot," remarks his brother Kai, "and to my ears it's not strictly in the jazz tradition. He used to write in Japanese scales but now he mostly uses the pentatonic scale. Goh took jazz, Middle Eastern and Balkan music, folk music and Japanese scales to make something all his own."
The Balkan input can be traced to Goh's study with Miroslav Tadic at Cal Arts. The Serbian-born guitarist immersed Kurosawa in odd meters. "That's where Goh learned much of his finger-style guitar," reveals trumpeter Daniel Rosenboom, a longtime collaborator who toured Japan with the Kurosawa brothers in 2012. "It's similar to Flamenco, with clear articulation and clean picking. In Goh's playing, you hear the Balkan, rock, metal and jazz. I don't know that he thinks of himself as a jazz player, but if you spend any amount of time improvising, you're going to have to go through some jazz."
Rosenboom, like the Kurosawa brothers, attended Cal Arts, and can identify another of Goh's mentors: reed omnivore Vinny Golia. "Vinny taught me," Goh recalls, "every time you play a note, you release a vibration into the air. Make it a positive one."