Further Evolutions: Dana Leong, Downtown,
Loft and Nu-Jazz.
There is a
tradition as old as jazz itself of musicians finishing a gig, and then instead
of going to bed, finding a little club or party where, safe among their fellow
musicians and the equally appreciative faithful, they cut loose. Aside from
providing a type of release, these after hour jam sessions sometimes allowed
them to work out new theories.
Like a lot of
developments in modern art such as Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) using Ripolin
house paint in his works (1912) one factor of innovation has always been money
or lack of. Downtown music started in the 1960s. It directly was born of
the 1950s artists of various mediums, who unable to live, work or have
their art seen/heard anywhere else began using the then still inexpensive lofts
as de-facto base of operations for everything.
This concept was
further adapted by the Fluxus Movement, which was an international movement
that borrowed from the most forward thinking aspects of what had gone on before
it (surrealism/Dadaism) and continued its modernization with a multi-media
aspect. These small intimate concerts/theater/concept pieces were known as
sound did not have one specific aesthetic or feel. There was a cross current of
styles to be found which blurred not only genres of jazz, but categories of
music as well. Initially, there were elements of free jazz, modern classical
and world music. All this diverse music had many differences but also some key
elements in common. There was political/intellectual/spiritual aspects to all
of it, mixed to varying degrees. Since this music was very much outsider
art there was a sense of kinship between all the artists regardless of the
fact that one may lean more towards the western (modern) classical and another
more towards the (free) jazz aspects of playing and composing.
The loft venues
themselves were smaller than most clubs and this also created a feeling of
collaboration between the audience and artists. There was not an overall
hierarchy in regards to composer/performers. Freedom to pursue ones muse
without tempering it with commercial considerations meant that many artists
whose work is now seen as integral to the cannon of modern music at least
briefly could be found on this scene.
The Loft Jazz
movement naturally evolved out of the downtown sound scene. By the early
1970s Acoustic (classic) jazz was an endangered species. The
record buying youth were voting with their dollars on rock and rolls
future. Some of jazzs most visible figures like Miles Davis more and more
embraced rocks rhythms and sonic devices. Those who wanted to cast out in
a different less populist direction either set out for Europe (Mal Waldron,
Eric Dolphy, et al) or emerged themselves in the downtown/loft scene.
George Braith opened a basement club in New York (also one of first stateside
vegetarian restaurants) called Musart. This was an important venue for the
forward thinking elements of jazz. Performers who were already established and
up and comers pursuing a deeper, freer muse which were all lumped under an
avant garde category could meet and perform there. Around this time too,
Ornette Coleman began giving concerts out of his loft on Prince Street (NYC)
and multi-reedist Sam Rivers had Studio Rivbea (NYC) which became focal point
of a sort of sonic art for arts sake where concerts were
given and some recordings were also made.
As the downtown
sound organically morphed into loft jazz an electric element became more
frequently used in instrumental line ups. Unlike what was going on in jazz
however the instrument was made to fit the music not vice versa.
The loft music
scene never died, it did however morph as even now it continues to. The term
itself fell into a sort of disuse as some of the composers who had been in on
the scene found their works slowly gaining exposure and recognition to more
than just those in the know. While there was never a sudden whole
sale acceptance of this music, it did start to reach more of the casual
listening public even if only as cursory inspiration and provider of devices
used as flavoring in more palatable music.
Another factor of
change to the scene was the onset of new venues which were not strictly
downtown or even lofts that began featuring concerts of this music.
One thing which
had always hindered downtown/loft music from gaining wider acceptance more
easily was the dizzying array of genres and subgenres which were all occurring
at once. Jazz with all its genres usually was easier to categorize as they all
followed specific sonic formulas and modes of creation and although no type of
jazz ever completely disappears, often one came after another in the music
going publics conscious. Loft music had many things going at once as
artists like some modern seers on the dole, pursued their new muses
concurrently in many directions some well outside of jazz and connected only
tenuously to jazz by an improvisational aspect or lack of general recognition
outside of specific circles.
quick glance reveals under this one musical umbrella, Conceptualism,
Minimalsim, Free Improvisation, Totalism. It was hard to know where to start
ones exploration or sometimes, for store owners, where to put the albums.
Later, turnbulism based music would suffer the same disadvantage
(Techno-ambient, Low-beat- jungle, house et al).
The spirit of
downtown/loft if not the actual theories has fully carried over into ensuing
generations, in the early days of hip-hop with its interesting sound loops and
in the DIY of early waves of the punk explosion. More recently the Lo-Fi
movement can be seen as more of the initial scenes progeny. Loft Music,
Downtown sound are no longer restricted to one specific location in or around
NYC or even to one country. It is now sometimes used as a short hand to
describe any multi-influenced/component music done with all commercial
considerations secondary thing.
To say that later
Loft musician/composers sometimes mixed the high with the low art is to
sell short the touches of the days vernacular which sometimes found their
way into the art. It speaks if even unintentionally of a type of sonic gag
which was often not the case. One of many examples would be John Zorn (1953)
who would combine the discordant and cerebral aspects of free/avant jazz and
modern classical with inspiration gleamed from cartoon soundtrack music of Carl
Stalling (1891-1972) and spaghetti western maestro Ennio Morricone (1928). Such
divergent sources combined to make music which packed an emotional punch.
Today there is an
even greater influx of influences from things aurally observed in the everyday.
From rap to world music, it is all easier to get and sample thanks to the
internet. Recordings are more easily made, home recording equipment having
become smaller, cheaper and simpler to use which is resulting in anther loft
type of movement, not necessarily in location but spirit. People are mixing
genres, combining inspirations while not worrying about categorization.
A good example of
this is multi instrumentalist Dana Leong. Dana can be seen as a direct artistic
descendant of the Downtown/Loft pedigree. It is not so much that he tries to
build off of someone like John Zorn, but what Dana has in common with not just
him but the scene in general is a sense of freedom and exploration and a
willingness to draw from a multitude of diverse sources simultaneously.
A child prodigy,
Dana started playing piano at the age of one. By the age of six he was taking
lessons and by eight entering into international competitions. Danas
older brother Eric plays violin and trumpet. At the age of eight, Danas
mother would inspire Dana to switch his instruments to cello and trombone.
Still a strong multi-instrumentalist, it is these two instruments along with
his composing with which Dana is making his mark.
exposure to music was classical, but steadily he would enlarge the musical
terrain upon which he traveled. It is perfect symmetry that Dana was born and
spent his early years in San Francisco, then as now a cultural melting pot as
his music perfectly mirrors the diversity of sounds upon which he draws for
1998 saw Dana
expose himself further to new inspirations and explorations as he moved to New
York. It was here that he made his first album Leaving New York (2006 Tateo
Sound) while fronting his own band The Dana Leong Quintet.
This album is the
perfect place to start discovering Danas music. The group is his working
group and the pieces reflect this in the interplay of the band. It sounds as if
they are having a good time even on the more somber pieces. Another benefit
which arises from the band is that all the members of the ensemble are
composers in their own right so what is played or left out of a piece never
feels as if it is merely filler.
Whether he is
playing cello or trombone Dana shows an equal amount of finesse. A nice effect
and one which allows the album stand up to repeated listening is that none of
the pieces feel like merely a sonic back drop for Dana to solo over. The album
has seven tracks with three making up a suite titled Mother Nature Suite. A
track before the suite and three after break things up without destroying the
overall tension of the album.
Some of the many
stand out moments from the album:
The first track
starts off with a spoken word intro by Baba Israel. It has a poetic feel while
avoiding the now atypical slam style cadence which seems to be the derigeur for
anything not delivered in a straight out rap style. Throughout the album when
Babas vocals appear, it is never a distraction. On pieces where his
delivery veers more towards the rap side, it is not rap in its current
incarnation of bling and Kristal, but a rhythmic delivery showing another way
while still managing to encompass the energy of the street. The vocals give way
to flute which have a sort of soul-groove cadence as a contemplative cello
takes the main theme over plinking of violin sounding almost harp like.
Although not part
of the Mother Nature Suite, the first track seamlessly transitions into the
next track, the start of the suite. The album has several guest stars and the
start of the suite features the first, bassist Christian McBride. His bass
sounding full and rich plays over soft in the mix strings at the introduction.
Violinist Christian Howe merges his voice with Danas cello to create a
thing of subtle beauty. This first part of the suite manages to conjure up a
sense of building tension in a subtle way, avoiding some of the usual devices
such as merely increasing the tempo or volume of certain instruments. Even
while still in the first movement of the suite; there is a sonic metamorphous.
The bass re-emerges from the trio it had been in with the other strings to play
a bouncing figure which is joined by a classic organ combining with Aviv
Cohens light touch at the drums. The movement changes several more times
in feel as Dana lays down solo statements behind Jason Linders piano.
Jason has a chance to solo towards the end in a bright and percussive style.
During his solo, like the music on this album in general, there is a fusion of
styles as is evidenced by the occasional soft blossoming of electro
wahs during his solo and the hard edged guitar solo which takes
over the lead from him. There is a constant mixing of electric and acoustic
instruments which lends this album a perfect headphone element.
The second part
of the suite, Storm Warning starts off with an Asian feel one lone instrument
as if being heard on an old transistor radio. Cascading piano and sawing
strings take over, which along with rolling drums create drama. This part of
the suite very much has a modern classical feel to it. So well do the
instruments create a picture in the minds eye that even without knowing
the title of the piece, one calls up appropriate images. Like the other parts
of the suite, this movement changes in what instrumental voices are heard in
the lead and the cadence of their voices. It also serves to show that it does
not take a large number of instruments to effectively create and perform an
extended suite. In this piece Dana is heard on trombone. His playing possesses
a tone both well rounded and articulate. It has that bumble bee quality with
just the right amount of treble.
The piece ends
with the soft song of birds, the storm warning over and giving way to the next
movement Amen. The piece stars with a hushed grace. There is a slow building of
organ, cello and trombone. There is a Sunday Morning sanctified feel which is
apropos for the movements title. This is the shortest section of the movement
and throughout the trombone has an almost baroque tone and the organ a vintage
sound and feel devoid of kitsch and hollow nostalgia. The suite ends in a state
of grace or at the very least, a sun soaked dawn.
The last track on
the album Insatiable has a guest appearance by eight time Grammy winner Paquito
DRivera on clarinet. The songs start has a sort of klezmer meets
Argentinean Tango feel; the mix of reed with strings playful and with soul. The
song changes with introduction of a quicker tempoed percussive part before
changing yet again showing Paquitos innate ability to switch styles while
keeping his voice always recognizable. Paquito does not hobble the band, never
forcing them to remain in one style. In his own work he has been known to
effortlessly switch sonic gears a few times over the span of one piece. He has
great chemistry with Danas band which is not a surprise. Dana has played
in Paquitos Jazz Chamber Trio sometimes filling in Yo-Yo Mas spot.
This too makes sense as Dana, like Yo-Yo has certain cinematic aspects to his
playing and compositions.
The album has no
weak moments nor links in the band. The sound is pristine with all sorts of
small interesting things occurring within a piece aside from the main
instrumentation. Danas music is a perfect place to start for someone who
is seeking music not easily pigeon holed and which will outlive current musical
fads. It shows an aspect of what was Downtown/Loft sound while being more
accessible to the casual listener than some of those who came before him. That
is not to imply Danas music is simpler or watered down, he just pushes
less discordant elements to the fore of his compositions. A musical freedom he
takes full advantage of to create something which moves forward even as he
takes the occasional glance back.