Raising the Bars – Notes on Flute from Hiro Honshuku

Hiro Honshuku 2

Just released March 2, the CD “Happy Fire” with composer/arranger/flutist and EWI player Hiro Honshuku is an ear-full of assertive, flavorful jazz with outstanding instrumentation.

The title song of this CD gallops forward with energy from flute and violin in easy unison. Hiro then funks out with a lofty solo that he hands over to fiddle. The rhythmic bounce and fresh harmonic intervals make the song sparkle and the overall effect is expansive, ever-emanating sunshine.

Not to be outdone, the powerful “Nardis” (a Miles Davis tune) is a crashing-together world sound making stunning use of the best these musicians can offer. Unexpected input from the thick-sounding electric guitar which carries a hot rock vibe precedes the colorful, high-intensity layers Hiro piles on top. An outstanding band with an obvious love of togetherness, the CD is full of optimism and feel-goodism.

What was the more important element of your formal music education?

When I was studying traditional composition back when I attended university in Japan, I resented the old ideas. I argued with the professor and I was even kicked out of the class. When I came to the States to study jazz composition, I realized rules are to be broken but you can’t break rules to create something new if you don’t know the rules in the first place. Since then I was determined to learn all the rules even though I don’t agree with them, and waited for the day I graduate to start breaking rules.

As a performer, being in good schools means you play with others every day. A healthy competition is the icing on a cake. Once you graduate, you lose this huge opportunity, which is a big deal for learning.

What did you learn on your own that has been the most useful?

Since my teeth are quite crooked and my parents didn’t have me wear braces, I struggled playing flute for so long, and no teacher could help me. I finally got my own sound after I moved to the US.

The most important thing about any kind of art is to gain skills by copying others. Picasso already mastered traditional painting skills by the age of 15. I transcribed a lot, played and wrote compositions (because most of the jazz orchestra charts are not available).

When you write for yourself, how do you decide if it’s for flute, piccolo or EWI?

I actually don’t think that way. Unless the project is for a large ensemble, which has instrumentation requirements, I usually write it to be performed by any instruments. However, I do have in mind certain instruments which can sustain notes.  If it’s for piano, acoustic guitar or vibraphone, I have to write differently where sustaining notes cannot be used.

What are the qualities of each instrument above that are more conducive to a certain feel in jazz music?

Flute is not a jazz instrument to start with. Jazz came from blues, which is voices in the field. Brass and reed instruments contains rich harmonics like voices but flute doesn’t. Other thin harmonics instruments like vibraphone have the same issue but it also is a percussion instrument that produces the grooves that jazz needs.  Flute can’t win there either! That’s where EWI comes in. I try to program my EWI sound as close to voices as possible. It still is artificial so I use it only when it applies.

Piccolo is a tricky subject. When you play high notes on the flute, it sounds like a hysterical person screaming. Piccolo is high and annoying but it doesn’t sound like someone screaming. I like piccolo because it requires tight embouchure which helps grooves. I am still trying to figure this out.

What specifically is it about Miles Davis’ music that you so appreciate?

Miles is my god. I used to be a Christian. I used to teach Sunday School. As a Christian, I practice following the steps to Jesus.  I just switched that practice to Miles. Miles always moved forward.  When he creates something new, all the fun got upset, like when Miles released “Bitches Brew” and all the Miles’ fans criticized that he sold his soul, he killed jazz, etc.  But always, always when Miles did something new, five years later, the world is all doing what Miles started five years earlier. Miles showed us jazz has to keep advancing. This is the teaching of the House Of Miles.

What is a “Mint Can”?

Ah, Yuka Kido who is an amazing flute player from Brazil I idolized. She helped me finish this album when I needed second opinions such as the order of the songs. She even took album photos for us.

When Yuka and I drive to gigs, she often tapped ALTOIDS to play a samba groove which is amazing, so I asked her to play the ALTOIDS can on the title song, “Happy Fire.” You can see it here: http://h-hon.link/happyfire-cd.

So your original tune, “Happy Fire” – what inspired it?

When I write a song, the process is that a theme pops into my head. I wait three days to check if that theme has still stuck in my head. If I still remember the theme then I write it down, and the composition process starts. In other words, I don’t really start writing with inspiration. It just happens and then I have to find a fitting title afterword. Since the current Racha Fora band is moving towards rock, I thought “Happy Fire” was kinda fitting.

Hiro Honshuku CD cover

What was the most exciting part of producing your new CD?

I am not sure. Playing is the most exciting thing, always. Everything else, especially the business side, is a burden to me.  

I do enjoy choosing the cover art. I have been lucky to have a Brazilian artist, Anamaria Assis Brasil, give me her xylograph [wood engraving] for the Racha Fora albums. She has been painting while listening to my music for a couple of decades.

What is the “tonal gravity concept” and how is it used in your new CD?

It’s called the “Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization” by my late boss, George Russell. It is a concept that denies traditional harmony progression. Instead, it moves by tonal gravity. I write everything with this concept. Just like George, I do not use any of the traditional jazz chord progressions such as II – V – I.

The other songs on your CD- which do you particularly like or which has the best story behind it?

I think “Nem Um Talvez” is the second most important selection followed by “Happy Fire.”

“Nem Um Talvez” is written by Hermeto Pascoal, a Brazilian legend, and this song is written for Miles’ album called “Live Evil” where both Hermeto and Miles played together. Hermeto is a true genius. When I met him last year, he wrote us a song in 16 minutes. If you have time, please see this: http://h-hon.link/hermeto-yuka-hiro.

What are the challenges and joys of being part of a large ensemble?

I assume you are asking about my decades of employment by the Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra (a.k.a. JCA) rather than my own jazz orchestra I used to run till mid-90s? When I was in university, I hated playing in classical orchestra because I just didn’t like to be one of many. I guess I am a terrible team player.

I thought I would have the same issue when I joined JCA. But it was different. For one thing, being a part of a jazz orchestra is fun since there is the groove, the most important thing in jazz. Then, JCA is very special, having a flute player instead of asking sax players to switch to flute. In other words, JCA is one of the very rare jazz orchestras that thinks flute has an important place in jazz.

How many instrumentalists do you have? How did you meet them?

That changes all the time. The way I write is to find musicians I want to play with, form a band, then write something that best showcases the band. If a band member left, then I either find someone to replace him or her, or I’ll write without that instrument.  I currently can’t find any available bass player, so there is no bass in Racha Fora.

Searching for good musicians is a lifetime, ongoing project. Jam sessions are a most necessary process.  Word of mouth doesn’t work for my needs usually.

When you compose, how do you write for such different instruments as violin and cajon?

Racha Fora started with Rafael Russi on bass who had such a strong and one-and-only groove time feel. For that, I wanted pandeiro instead of the drum kit so the frequency space above bass is filled. Now we have no bass, and we need to have some low frequency grooves. For this, cajon fits the bill. We are lucky to have Andre Vasconcelos who is a rock-oriented jazz guitarist who can fill the wide range of frequencies and completes the frequency dynamics well with cajon.


Would you consider your style free, abstract, avant-garde, or other?

Oh no, none of them. We are a jazz group. As our web site slogan says, we are Racha Fora (pronounced “hasya fora” [branching out]) – Jazz Improvisation with Native Brazilian Grooves.

What do you want people to know about your music?

We groove hard! Our music is jazz that grooves and something you have never heard of.

What do you want people to know about jazz that they might not know?

As Miles said, jazz is not what you see in a museum. If you want to listen to old style jazz, you buy old records. Jazz has to evolve by definition.  And the most important thing in jazz is not improvisation, but time feel.

For more information, visit http://rachafora.com/en/hiro-honshuku and www.rachafora.com/en/happy-fire-new-kind-of-jazz.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Hiroaki Honshuku.
© Debbie Burke 2018

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