It's said that new ideas enter the collective zeitgeist, be they musical, visual or even political, only when people are ready to accept the concept of change. Artistically speaking, another axiom states that good artists borrow, but great artists steal. Something of both of these modes of thought is captured in guitarist/composer Tom Chang's debut release, Tongue & Groove.
Chang has taken what he willingly calls "the longer way" in bringing his novel ideas to New York City's music scene. Chang's Tongue & Groove, to be released June 3, 2014 on Raw Toast Records, brings fresh fuel to jazz improvisation, stretching its familiar framework with oft-referenced contemporary classical and rarer Southern Indian classical influences; his compositions free his musicians yet challenge them to dig deeper. Chang's unusual melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic sensibilities result in engrossing music on Tongue & Groove.
"I am trying to present music that I like hearing and that I think people will like too," Chang says. "I want a really strong melody, and really interesting rhythmic ideas: the same things I want to hear as a listener. It's basically tone, timbre, and all the other things that follow. I don't expect the listener to realize we're going from 4/4 to 7/4 and modulating on the dotted quarter note. I just want them to realize something different is happening."
Tongue & Groove is the result of years of conventional performance and study, as well as tutelage from master South Indian Carnatic percussionist and vocalist T.H. Subash Chandran (who guests on the CD). In his formative years, Chang studied jazz harmony at Berklee School of Music, then contemporary classical composers when he arrived in New York, opening yet another door to his musical evolution. Tongue & Groove exists in that otherworldly zone where divergent musical styles meet the fission of improvisation.
Tongue & Groove's title track begins with a vocal percussion solo, the konnakol, performed by T.H. Subash Chandran, followed by Greg Ward's alto and Chang's guitar swirling over Cleaver's quasi tango snare drum figures, leading to heady improvisations abetted by Askshay Anantapadmanabhan's pulsing kanjira, the South Indian frame drum (Askshay also plays mridangam on the record). Cleaver's steady clave pulse locks he groove.
"The konnakol is based on what the South Indian musicians call a korvai, a rhythmic etude/cell," Chang explains. "When you put a melody to a korvai it's like an instant composition. It doesn't contain any pitches or chords but as soon as you assign notes to a korvai and follow the structure of the rhythmic cell, you have an instant composition. I juxtaposed that with some Latin rhythms I've been studying. It's all rhythm. I love the richness of these rhythmic grooves that come from these different cultures."
Opening track "Spinal Tap/Goes to 11" explores metric-modulation between saxophone and guitar, Rigby's soft, luminous tenor tone making Chang's wirey guitar sound all the more elastic and interstellar. "Bar Codes" skitters and shakes over Cleaver's humid pulse and Lightcap's leisurely walking bass line, supporting the dual howl of Rigby and Chang as they shoot a blues cry through the night. Chang's sunspot-streaked solo is a highlight. Is this Ornette inspired or something else?
"That is a really screwy blues, with a few metric modulations," Chang laughs. "The juxtaposition of those rhythms together with the layering of one meter on top of another."
Chang references Webern's "Variation Opus 27" in the spiraling "Webern/Sleepwalker," which tilts between an exotic dual melody line and winding rhythms that bend like houses against a nuclear blast. The nearly Noirish ballad, "The Logos," is charming yet eerie. Lightcap's stately bass solo signals the coda, and the song's all too brief existence. "Entangoed Heart" follows a melodically more quizzical and upbeat vein, Chang's darting guitar figures leading to Rigby's generous, urgent solo over an airy Cleaver groove. Tongue & Groove closes with "Spinal Tap #2," recapping the rock guitar strafing of the opening track and its crisscrossing horn lines, resonant drums and spiraling hiccup of a melody. Gleeful, practically hungry solos abound on Tongue & Groove, as does the quickening pace of cross-rhythms and contrasting melodies flowing together nearly as one.
A native of Toronto, Canada, Tom Chang was inspired to play guitar after hearing Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page. The initial flush of rock guitar wonder was followed by equally heavy doses of the blues, before jazz hit him squarely between the eyes. In the mid 80s, Chang enrolled at Los Angeles' Guitar Institute of Technology where he majored in jazz performance. He studied privately with Scott Henderson, Joe Diorio, and the late Ted Greene. Chang's quick advancement led to regular professional gigs with everyone from comedian (then cabaret performer) Sandra Bernhard and crooner Luther Vandross to Sade.
While still at GIT, Chang hopped a red eye to New York to catch guitarists Bill Frisell and Jim Hall with bassist Steve LaSpina and drummer Joey Baron at the Village Vanguard. Inspired by their performance, Chang decided to move to Manhattan, first moving to Boston where he studied jazz composition at Berklee College of Music and took private lessons with Mick Goodrick.
Chang made the jump to New York City in 1989, and began playing almost immediately. Dave Binney, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Ben Monder, Rez Abbasi, Ron McClure, Tom Rainey, Joey Calderazzo and Brad Shepik all christened the newcomer into New York City's musical deep end.
"I wasn't ready, but the scene was amazing," Chang recalls. "Right away you could jump in and start playing. That exposed me to a lot of great players."
Regarding the album's Southern Indian Carnatic influence, Chang was initially, like many musicians, fascinated only by the music's rhythmic complexity.
"When I actually started taking the rhythms apart is when I began to love the music," Chang says. "The way the music is crafted is amazing. It's very complex yet when played properly it can sound very simple and beautiful. The more I studied Southern Carnatic music the more I became interested in the actual melodies moreso than purely its rhythms. So many people are caught up in the intellectual aspects of Indian music but it has such richness of melody and texture."
Tongue & Groove's unusual compositional colors and intense solos force the question: Is Tom Chang a composer whose tool happens to be the guitar or a guitarist intent on expressing something new?
"The composing and guitar playing feed each other equally," Chang offers. "A lot of the newer harmonic material I am working on will crystallize in the form of a composition. Or I'll be working on a certain concept and it will give me ideas that work well on guitar. Lately I've been studying counterpoint which is basically compositional in nature. All of it opens up different ways of approaching how I play the guitar."