photo by Ben Clark
Nearly every fusion jazz artist has a straight jazz side inside of them, and although not as often, the reverse is often true, too. Minneapolis/St. Paul-based multi-instrumentalist and composer Cory Wong is definitely one of the ones who thrives on both sides of jazz, but instead of making a tight, straight ahead record and following it up with a looser fusion record, he made both records at once and released them together. That’s the main thrust of his upcoming release Quartet/Quintet.
The Quartet, as I found out, plays straight jazz but in the 21st century sense of it. There’s drum ‘n’ bass happenings going on. The harmonies are advanced and not rooted in the blues. The rhythm is more apt to rock than swing. But all this is done within the guitar/piano/upright bass/drums lineup. While Wong plays guitar, Billy Peterson mans the bass, Dan Musselman or Kevin Gastonguay is on piano and Zach Schmidt is behind the drum kit.
These ten songs are a preconceived and thoroughly composed bunch, and a lot of group cohesion was needed to make it work, but the hard work helped to make the harmonies easy to absorb. “October Snow” has ebullient, Metheny-esque harmonics, but Wong doesn’t cop Metheny with his guitar approach; it’s relaxed and measured throughout much of Quartet, often evocative of Philip Catherine. Though there’s more direct nods to tradition on songs such as “Vapors” and “Pass The Plate,” and another that leans toward indie rock (“Claire”), elsewhere Wong attempts to reconcile the two opposing forces, with good results. Of those such compositions, “Poughkeepsie” is the most memorable.
The closing quartet song “Hatch” is already making preparations for what’s to come with the quintet. It begins going down a fairly standard post-bop path but it breaks down along the way, with Wong making heavier use of textures and guitar effects and parlaying them into a spooky, celestial spirit. Peterson joins the vagary with the scraping of his strings. The most extended of the quartet tracks, “Hatch” illuminates the reconciling of two musical worlds, a gray area where Wong thrives.
Quintet, on its own disc 2, gets even more interesting, but not because Wong is introducing electrified timbres and all the possibilities that come with it. Rather, Wong is playing even freer, taking more risks and revealing more facets of his musical personality than with the quartet. Like Bitches Brew-era Miles, Wong came with sketches and had his band and himself play much more in the moment, composing on the spot.
“Quintet” is kind of a misnomer for this disc, because for half of these six songs there are three or four performers, not five. That’s because Wong also handles bass, percussion and additional keyboard duties on those tracks; Musselman and Gastonguay and Schmidt are retained, and Andy Schuster or Patricio Toledo Creus plays the bass for the three true quintet cuts.
“Approach” (YouTube below) rides on a thick bass groove with Wong setting off big sonic wash pedal effects most of the way, fading away to unaccompanied electric piano meanderings. “The Hunt” is another bass-riff driven song, but moves through more phases over the course of its nineteen-minute length, cresting, falling back and regrouping again several times. “Snowstorm” is longer still, but Schuster’s stable bass phrases holds the song together as Wong and Gastonguay improvise their way through; often with a King Crimson attitude. “Whether It Changes Or Not” is a funk tune, with same tasty soloing by Wong, followed by a spacey, ambient coda. The last two tracks, “714″ and “Retreat,” finishes off the set without the volatility of the prior songs, with “714″ even circling back to Metheny-type melody, particularly early Pat Metheny Group.
Making a jazz record covering referencing so many styles and two distinct approaches would be an ambitious project for anyone. It requires a lot of aptitude in composing, band leading and performance. Not to mention, diversity, vision and creativity. For Cory Wong, a guitar player whose played alongside Bootsy Collins, Jimmie Vaughan and The Blind Boys of Alabama, making such a sweeping record as he proved with Quartet/Quintet isn’t outside his capabilities.
Quartet/Quintet hits the streets in the USA on June 26. Visit Cory Wong’s website for more info.