Whether on the cello, trombone or laptop, whether playing straight-up jazz, classical, or the many hybrid concoctions his work has already produced, Dana Leong seems to acknowledge no boundaries. He has worked with a wide range of players, holds down the cello chair for the Paquito D'Rivera trio, has just released a second album fusing jazz with hip-hop, runs a recording studio, shows up in Hollywood films, and is currently touring as an artistic ambassador with the State Department Rhythm Road Program.
All About Jazz recently had the pleasure of speaking with Leong via phone from his apartment in New York following the latest leg of the tour. All About Jazz:
You have a lot going on. You are touring as a musical ambassador with Jazz at Lincoln Center and the State Department, you have two albums out, both having received critical praise, and you're gigging with a veritable who's who. And you make it seem so natural and easy. So the question is, was it ever hard? Dana Leong:
(Laughs) Oh man, yeah. Of course. It's difficult every day. (Pauses) But I myself find comfort hearing that people I admire struggle as well. Things may sparkle on the outside, but they'll say the exact same things that I'll say. They might be tired of working on more business than music at timesthat they wish it could be more pure music or more pure art. It's encouraging at the same time as frustrating. It's a communal thing. AAJ:
You were immersed in music from early on. Your mother was a piano teacher, your brother was preparing for a career in classical music. Did you ever want to rebel, just throw the instruments away and say, "I want to be a lawyer! I want to be an accountant!" DL:
(Laughs) Right. Well I definitely did have moments where I wanted to stop, when I wanted to quit. But I didn't necessarily know what else I would do. At an early age I just wanted to have the same type of freedoms the other kids that I knew had. When I was eight years old, kids would come home from school and hang out, play sports, run around outside, and I would be working on musical assignments every day for, you know, not an insane amount of time, but an hour, a couple hours a day. Then I could go out and do the things other kids could do. But I kept asking my mom, "Why can't I do what my friend up the street does? He goes home and plays baseball or is in a little league thing." She said, "Well, you're not that kid and I'm not his mom, so we're going to do what we do." (Laughs) By the time I got to high school though, she let the reins loose a little bit, and I was into sports, cars, fashion, and alljust a regular kid in the Bay area.
By the time I graduated high school, I was either going to go into track and field at Stanford and stay in the Bay area or study biology and follow in my father's footsteps and go into scienceor move out of the state and go into music. Ultimately it was my own decision after thinking of all the different possible avenues and whether it was really worth it to go into music as a lifelong profession, or even to move out of the Bay area unlike most of my peers. At the last minute I decided to go for it. Move to New York City, go to the conservatory, and push it all the way from there. AAJ:
Seems like it paid off. DL:
It's working out. So far. Like I said, every day is a new day. Still a lot of goals and a long way to go, but you know, things are going very, very well and I'm really pleased. AAJ:
So you grew up in the Bay area. And you're of Chinese and Japanese descent, is that correct? DL:
My mother was born in Japan, and my father is Chinese. AAJ:
Do you still have family in Japan? Did you have a lot of connection with your Japanese heritage growing up, or like the rest of us, are you pretty much here and just "American." DL:
I would think more the latter, actuallythough I did visit Japan once a year. That was most of what encapsulated my Japanese culture. I did go to Japanese school for Japanese-Americans for a couple of years and learned to read and write a tiny bit, at a very rudimentary level. (Laughs) AAJ:
It must have been interesting getting to go to Japan once a year and getting that experience. DL:
Sure, sure. I totally love it there. I've said it many times to many of my friends. I firmly stand by the statement. I think Japan is the most different place on earth from the United States. AAJ:
I had a similar experience there. There are a lot of big-picture, surface similarities. Big economies, consumer culture, and we obviously have a strong relationship with each other. But to me I found when I was thereand particularly when I came backthat the overall aesthetic culture is so strong and so different that there is nothing else like it. There is no analog, and it really changes your perception.