Tap, tap—He’s it. We’ve heard that Kai Kurosawa is the go-to guy for tap guitarists in LA jazz circles, so Nordstrand Pickups was psyched to work with him recently to develop a custom pickup for his ax.
"Nordstrand Pickups give me confidence,” Kurosawa says about the partnership. “I get out of my instruments what I put into it, and I feel comfortable knowing that my pickups have my back.” Plus, he thinks we’re nice. Awwwww, shucks.
Naturally, we wanted to know more about Kai and his music. He developed unique techniques for various genres of music and is constantly gigging with someone somewhere with two hands on his fretted/fretless Beartrax tap-style 24-stringer, which he co-designed. Kurosawa essentially plays bass and keyboard/guitar at the same time, and he does it like a boss.
These days Kai, an LA transplant by way of Japan, performs regularly with jazz instrumentalists the Daniel Rosenboom Quintet, as well as with his older brother Goh in Sharp Three. Kurosawa’s softer side emerges regularly as a soloist, and he takes time out for a side project called Got Monk? with renowned Japanese heavy metal drummer Kegoi. Believe it or not, Kai displays even more range as part of death rock/industrial darlings Collide.
Kurosawa’s musical path started with piano lessons, but he soon tired of tickling the ivories. Next, Kai tried out trumpet, trombone and finally guitar, but still he didn’t feel driven to rehearse. At 15, he experimented with playing bass parts on his guitar and something clicked. “It was just a joy to me,” Kurosawa says.
Kai started writing bass solos and bought his first six-string fretless bass about six months into becoming a bass man. That nagging pianist inside was not giving up so easily though. Kurosawa started experimenting with more eccentric bass lines, playing melody bass and chords at the same time.
As Kai’s proficiency continued, he particularly liked tapping. One day he saw a Warr guitar, whose concept is based on the Chapman Stick created to play two or more parts at once, and got excited to take on the challenge. Two years later, in 2000, Kurosawa bought himself a Warr. Three days into teaching himself how to play the thing, he decided to scratch everything and start over.
“I realized I didn’t have the right mindset to play the instrument,” Kai says. “From there I totally changed how I play and approach the Warr and wanted to learn it as its own instrument, rather than as a bass or guitar.”
To say that Kurosawa merely learned to play the Warr would be an insult. Along the way he achieved notoriety for his unique method. Kai is right handed, but he solos with his left hand instead of the right, which dazzles audiences and musical peers alike.
Not one to mail it in Kurosawa also uses all 10 fingers, not letting those thumbs and pinkies lie idle. He improvises a bass line and solos at the same time on a variety of styles from progressive jazz and rock to South Indian and Middle Eastern music to jazz standards, often eliciting many head-scratcher inquiries from professors, pianists and others. With a single hand Kai can play a palm-muted sound, as well as finger and pluck or finger and strum while playing lines and improvising.
Kurosawa’s diverse skills have earned him gigs teaching and organizing tap seminars in Belgium and Japan, and performing chamber music at Strathmore in Maryland. Kai has packed his bags for the Progressive Nation at Sea festival and put dibs on a hammock in tropical paradise as part of the Zihuatanejo International Guitar Festival.
While back in L.A., Kurosawa has logged studio time recording “Sweet 17” with the contemporary percussion group Hands On’Semble and contributed bass for renowned drummer Thomas Lang’s latest CD. Kai also squeezes in time to work with inner city kids through the Community Arts and Partnership office at CalArts.
But it was his time with Collide that pushed the chameleon-like Kai outside of his comfort zone. Kurosawa cast his apprehension aside and auditioned to be the band’s bass player, despite knowing very little about the subculture. He got to add soundtrack credits on “NCIS: Los Angeles” and Resident Evil: Extinction to his eclectic resume thanks to Collide’s kaRIN and Statik.
“I enjoy changing myself to adapt to different situations,” Kurosawa says, adding that the bandmembers are some of the sweetest people he’s met despite their dark aesthetic. “And I really enjoyed getting dressed up and putting makeup on. It was the coolest thing when kaRIN gave me my own very first black nail polish.”
Click HERE to watch the amazing Kai Kurosawa in action!