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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 1960’s. It directly was born of the 1950’s 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 "happenings".

The Downtown 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 one’s 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 1970’s Acoustic (‘classic") jazz was an endangered species. The record buying youth were voting with their dollars on rock and roll’s future. Some of jazz’s most visible figures like Miles Davis more and more embraced rock’s 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.

Multi-reedist 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 art’s 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 public’s 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.

Just a quick glance reveals under this one musical umbrella, Conceptualism, Minimalsim, Free Improvisation, Totalism. It was hard to know where to start one’s 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 scene’s 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 day’s 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. Dana’s older brother Eric plays violin and trumpet. At the age of eight, Dana’s 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.

His initial 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 inspiration.

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 Dana’s 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 Baba’s 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 Dana’s 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 Cohen’s light touch at the drums. The movement changes several more times in feel as Dana lays down solo statements behind Jason Linder’s 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 mind’s 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 D’Rivera on clarinet. The song’s 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 Paquito’s 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 Dana’s band which is not a surprise. Dana has played in Paquito’s Jazz Chamber Trio sometimes filling in Yo-Yo Ma’s 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. Dana’s 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 Dana’s 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.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Dana Leong
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