Interview with Jonathan Ng: Jazz improvisation the goal form to break form: Video

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Jazz interview with jazz violinist and vocalist Jonathan Ng. An interview by email in writing.

JazzBluesNews.com: – When you improvise, you know where you’re going. It’s a matter of taking certain paths and certain directions?

Jonathan Ng: – When I improvise, I think of telling a story I don’t know the ending to. I like putting forth an idea, and slowly developing it as I go along. It’s very stream of consciousness for me. I like starting with different ideas based on my mood, the environment, or what I hear the other musicians doing.

JBN: – Do you ever get the feeling that music majors, and particularly people who are going into jazz, are being cranked out much like business majors? That they are not really able to express themselves as jazz musicians?

JN: – I think that it’s very easy to fall into the trap of viewing music from a strictly academic sense. It’s very important to remember that most of the musicians that are part of the historical canon never went to school for music. They learned to play by listening, spending time learning directly from older musicians, and performing. It was a very organic process.

On a related note, I do think that music majors should be taught a little more of the material which business majors are taught, because so much of being successful in the music industry today hinges on business literacy.

JBN: – What about somebody who is really gifted and puts together a band and just gets upset to the point of quitting because of the business aspects-the agents and the clubs?

JN: – I strongly believe that business literacy is a critical skill for being a successful musician. Somebody could play the best music in the world, but if they don’t know how to effectively market themselves and handle their finances, they won’t be able to grow their career.

Most artistic industries are very entrepreneurial and very social. One of the things that people pursuing music don’t realize is that on top of making your art, you’re essentially running your own small business. That means keeping up good business relations with agents and venues.

When I toured Japan, I realized just how challenging building these relationships could be, especially in a different culture with a language barrier. I had to quickly learn the social norms unique to Japanese culture in order to effectively interact with venue owners and organizers. Building these relationships are very rewarding though – first and foremost, people in the music business are some of the most interesting individuals you’ll ever meet. Second, the more people like you, the more likely you are to be booked again.

JBN: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?

JN: – Since my art is influenced by whatever I’m consuming, I try to be very conscious of what I’m taking in. However, I’m also not afraid to draw influences from unlikely places: for example, the infective pulse of an EDM beat can be very useful to think about when making swing music, since both are meant for dancing to.

On the other hand, I don’t try to hide my influences. I think it’s important to be genuine in my art, which means being honest in where my inspiration is coming from.

JBN: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

JN: – I think that in jazz improvisation, the goal should be to learn form to break form. In the practice room, I spend most of my time drilling fundamentals (scales, arpeggios, etc.), transcribing solos, and studying chord changes to tunes – what I consider to be the intellectual meat of jazz music. However, when I get on stage, I rely almost completely on feel, or soul as you call it. Once I’ve sharpened my intellectual tools in the practice room by internalizing my fundamentals, I aim to use them to express what I’m feeling. So, what I’m saying is that intellect is a means to an end of expressing one’s soul.

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?

JN: – I think that one of the biggest challenges as a musician is balancing the expression of one’s artistic vision with the expectation of one’s audience. In jazz (and especially bebop), there is a large focus on artistic integrity, even at the expense of alienating the audience. While I am all for carrying out one’s artistic vision, I don’t think that this is the correct answer. For most musicians, the definition of being successful means garnering a sturdy fanbase and keeping a healthy revenue stream, which means that a lot of musicians can’t afford to take this approach.

Personally, I try to make music that keeps me satisfied artistically while also being accessible to a wide range of people. This becomes like a puzzle to me: how do I incorporate the musical elements I want to include in such a way that still keeps a wide range of listeners interested? This becomes even more challenging when writing for swing dancers, because they are even more particular about what tempos and melodies feel good to dance to. Solving this puzzle feels very rewarding for me though, because that leads to a room full of people dancing along to my music.

JBN: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

JN: – On my most recent tour in Japan, I worked with Japanese musicians for all of my shows, who spoke very limited English. Because I like being pretty spontaneous in my arrangements, I had to figure out a way to communicate different musical instructions to them. I came up with a set of hand signals and melodic cues I could use on stage to signal shout choruses, endings, hits, etc. which I slowly added to as the tour progressed.

JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

JN: – Today, there is a public perception of jazz as a sophisticated, high class, intellectual music. This is all true, but I think exclusively marketing this side of jazz has had a very detrimental effect on the genre. In order to get young people interested in jazz, I think publications need to do a better job portraying the other side of jazz – the high energy, dazzling improvisation, and raw power that drew me and many other young people to it. Live performances can be so captivating, and at times can feel like punk shows with how hard the musicians are playing!

As far as standards that are half a century old, I don’t think that is a particularly difficult roadblock to overcome. As long as the energy is there, people will be drawn to the music. On the flip side, I do think that it is important for jazz musicians to hone their stage presence and learn to emote this kind of energy. At present, I don’t think that jazz culture particularly encourages this kind of emotional projection, which is highly valued in modern audiences.

JBN: – Do you find it difficult to write music yourself?

JN: – I find writing music to be both very challenging and very rewarding. I definitely enter a different mindset when I’m composing than I’m in when I’m playing, although I do draw on the latter to aid the former. After all, I consider improvisation to be spontaneous composing.

I think my biggest challenge is to not over-think what I write, because there are endless possibilities to every passage, especially as an improviser. Locking in a passage is difficult for me because I can hear many different musical options for each line. I’ve learned that a large part of composing is simply making decisions and committing to them.

In writing for my upcoming album, I’ve been thinking a lot more about composing specifically for each individual instrument: articulating rhythms that accentuate the qualities unique to a piano or guitar for example, and learning to deliberately build musical textures from those new patterns. I’ve actually been learning more piano, drums, guitar, and bass in order to improve my skills at writing for those instruments.

JBN: – How important is it to you to have an original approach? Can you comment on the bridge between being a musician and being a composer?

JN: – I talked a lot about composing in the previous question, so I’ll speak a little bit more about the role composing plays in my improvisation. One of my favorite parts about jazz is that the musician also plays the role of the composer. Everybody gets a section of the song – their solo – to give voice to their own musical ideas.

I’ve always struggled with the duality of trying to preserve tradition, while injecting my own originality into my playing; how do I balance using the historical jazz rhetoric, with presenting my own ideas? Although this is still an ongoing exploration, I’ve come to a couple conclusions so far.

First, it is important to learn to play in the styles of those you look up to, before trying to form your own style. This will help you to internalize jazz rhetoric and make more informed decisions on your own stylistic choices.

Second, only inject your originality when you have something impactful to contribute musically.

JBN: – Do you have an idea of what it is you’re trying to say or get across? Is it an idea or is it just something that we feel?

JN: – What I’m trying to convey through my music is something that depends on a lot of factors. It changes depending on my mood, the environment, and the musicians I’m with.

For example, If I’m feeling a very strong emotion on a certain day, my improvisation may be very joyful, or very sullen. If I’m feeling less inspired by any one emotion, I may draw on the environment around me for inspiration: the steps of a dancer in front of me, or even a flickering lamp. I also love having musical conversations with the other players on the bandstand – telling musical jokes to try to make them laugh, or simply playing with their expectations.

Specifically at swing dances, a lot of my playing is based on the steps I would execute if I was dancing to my own music. I try to convey a lot of rhythms that encourage certain types of movements in the dancers.

JBN: – What do you see for your extended future? You know what you have going on? You have life? If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

JN: – I would love to be able to use music as a way to travel the world. I enjoy meeting new people, experiencing new cultures, and eating delicious food, so being able to do those things while making music would be perfect. I recently played a month-long tour through Japan. It was my first longer tour out of the country, something I had previously viewed as unattainable. What I’ve realized since then is that as long as you’re willing to put in the time and effort, – and you have the right people in your corner – you can make a lot happen! Now, I can’t wait to get started planning my next tour abroad.

I would also like to devote more time to composing. In the past couple years, I’ve spent the majority of my time working on my skills as an improviser. However, now that I’ve begun writing more, I’ve found that there are so many cool textures to explore when every instrument is coordinated to demonstrate a single, pre-planned musical concept. The more I get acquainted with the idea of specificity when notating musical phrases, the more excited I get to experiment with the endless possibilities I could create.

If I could change one thing, it would be the cultural perception of what it takes to pursue art. Modern Western culture has a weird dichotomy of portraying artists as either starving poets sipping on wine in a dinghy apartment or rock stars living in hedonistic luxury, when in reality, most working artists spend the majority of their time in regimented routines honing their craft. Every gigging musician has spent thousands of hours practicing, listening, writing emails, and performing a plethora of other unglamorous tasks to get to where they are currently, and I find it unfortunate that this hard work is often not acknowledged by most music listeners today. I think our lack of awareness as a culture for the work that goes into creating music is largely the reason why most people are uncomfortable paying more than a trivial amount to support artists, and why so many substitute the idea of hard-earned virtuosity with the nebulous concept of “talent” when discussing art.

JBN: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

JN: – I’ve been diving into a lot of Bach recently. I always go back to his music for inspiration because I think there’s so many layers to dig into. I’ve also been listening to Nat King Cole’s Around Midnight. The arranging on that is so nuanced and well executed!

When I’m just walking around, I’ve been putting on Anderson .Paak, Theo Katzman, and Bon Iver.

JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?

JN: – My goal in making music is to create a shared experience with the people around me. I love forming emotional connections with others and bringing people together. It’s one of the biggest reasons I chose to specialize in playing for swing dancers – at a swing performance, they are there to share in the communal energy.

JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

JN: – If we go back in time, am I allowed to temporarily become a white man? I’m 30% kidding.

Anyways, I would love to go back to the 30s, to see the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. It was the birthplace of lindy hop, and one of the major venues of the swing era, which all the best big bands played at. As both a swing dancer and a jazz musician that plays for swing dancers, it would have been fantastic to see both the music and the dance in their prime.

I also think it would be interesting to go forward in time, to see how art as a whole will have evolved in 10-20 years. Art, and our culture’s relationship to it has already changed so much in the last 10 years with Spotify, Instagram, and other online platforms, so I would be curious to see the common trends in how art will have transformed in the future.

JBN: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?

JN: – Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to speak so deeply about my approach to my art. I really enjoyed sharing my thoughts with you!

If you’re interested in keeping up with my upcoming endeavors, please consider following me on Spotify, YouTube, or Instagram. I’ll be releasing my next album, The Sphynx, in early November, so keep an eye out for that as well. Also, if you’re curious about any of my answers, please reach out! I love talking about art. Thank you Simon!

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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