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Dana Leong: No Boundaries

By Published: February 26, 2008
Basically, by directly transferring the things that I had learned about playing on the trombone, as well as injecting things that I saw from people playing electric basses and upright basses, and guitar, percussion, world instruments ... All these things started pouring in to the way that I would approach the instrument. And the same on trombone—the way people beatbox in hip-hop started coming in to the way I approached the instrument. Those things really affected the way I learned the instrument.

AAJ: Now, you're obviously pushing the envelope stylistically, but you also appear to be pushing the envelope of the instruments themselves. Can you talk a little about your experiments with the mechanics of the cello? For those who haven't seen your playing, I'm thinking of things like picking below the bridge, using the body of the cello percussively ... things like that.

DL: It comes from a situation where there is already a desired result, and I work backwards to find a solution to the problem. I like certain sounds, for example, from the Far East, like the koto. And I found there is a certain way you can pluck the strings of the cello—and the positioning of your fingers—that emulates that sound. Nobody would ever believe that it's a cello until you see it.

AAJ: I did notice that there are times in your playing when it did shift dramatically to sound like a koto, or times when it sounded very much like an erhu.

DL: Yes, that's right.

AAJ: So these are deliberate analogs you are trying to create?

DL: Yes. Absolutely. That and the sounds of the theremin—way up high sliding around, those harmonics that you can manipulate on the strings when you are cutting the distance, so that you hear something that is two, three octaves higher than the fundamental tone of the strings.

A lot of techniques I've seen and borrowed from electric bass and guitar playing, from upright bass, sort of simultaneously. Like the two-fingered hand pizzicato that I just saw so many bass players using when they solo or play up-tempo music. I had to do that rather than the orchestral style which is one finger, and every time you pluck the string the hand comes off and it resonates and pushes the sound out. Instead, my hand is planted at the bass of the finger board. I watched a lot of bass players. As far as picking and playing more chordal stuff—I watched Richard Bona and the way he navigates the bass with a finger-picking style instead of a traditional style. He's more like a guitarist.

Dana Leong AAJ: This is something that really distinguishes your work—the way your fusing of different techniques mirrors your fusing of various styles and traditions, including the very prominent use of more modern genres, particularly hip-hop. How did that come about?

DL: It was really not as much a conscious decision. I grew up in the Bay area listening to that music. That music was the first music I really enjoyed outside of [what] I was studying. The pop and R&B and hip-hop of the early 90's in San Francisco—at that time they were playing what I feel was the heyday of hip-hop—Notorious B.I.G., Tupac, Dr. Dre, lots of great singers, good production, good music. That just stuck in my mind as a big musical ingredient where I am from. I think it affected the way I ended up playing my instruments. The way that I ended up playing jazz had to do with the fact that I'm from the West Coast, born in the 80's.

By the time I finished college, I wanted to do something that reflected all the music that I had studied, and basically I saw things more in two categories: Music that you could present in a hall or any situation where the audience is meant to be listening, where most of the time they would be stationary and less interactive. And the other style, which I like to say, is for situations: standing, dancing, drinking, interacting with the music and each other. I wanted to put out a work that reflected the first. That is what happened with Leaving New York. It was more composition-based—there was improvisation but it was rooted in presentational music. And then the newer album, which just came out, Anthems of Life—I wanted to do that pretty much at the same time. But logistically, I could only get one done and went with what was fresh in my mind and then revisited the other work.

AAJ: So these are the two sides of that frame: presentational and situational music. Again, a very deliberate and intriguing way of presenting the music. I'm quite interested in that side of your music, the way you're creating an image and framing the delivery. I think a lot of jazz musicians are not as conscious of image—which I guess can be a good thing sometimes. And then at the opposite extreme you have hip-hop, which some might argue is too image driven. I mean, we're seeing stories now about artists using...

DL: Steroids.

AAJ: Right. So if hip-hop suffers from an image problem, does jazz suffer from a "no-image" problem?

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