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Interview with Jeff Song

"Rules of Engagement"

Boston, Massachusetts

Jeff Song and Lowbrow / Rules of EngagementThis interview with Jeff Song is one of two interviews conducted by ImprovisAsians!, (the other with Jason Hwang) and published here by In Motion Magazine with permission. ImprovisAsians! is the newsletter of Asian Improv Records, an independent label dedicated to new directions in music for Asian Americans. These interviews are part of an ongoing series by ImprovisAsians! which explore the contributions of Asian Americans to contemporary improvisation. For further information on musicians email, to order Asian Improv CDs email Asian Improv and ImprovisAsians can be reached at 1422 Grant St., Berkeley, CA 94703-1109, USA.

Fluent in a variety of musical languages, Boston area musician/composer Jeff Song is becoming well known for his contributions to the world of contemporary improvisation and to the growing body of creative music by Asian Americans. Originally from Iowa, Jeff has been active in the jazz, rock, funk, and contemporary improvisation scenes in the Boston and New York areas since 1982. Primarily a bass guitarist and vocalist, he also performs and records on the kayagum, a Korean 12-string zither. Outside of the traditional Korean aesthetic, Jeff has developed his own unique style, approach, and technique on this zither as another means for his creative music making.

ImprovisAsians: Maybe you could begin by telling us a little bit about your new CD?

Jeff Song: My new disc, 'Rules of Engagement,' is the first recording from my new group, Lowbrow. Although the group includes many people that I've worked with before, there are some new members, and the overall concept for the music is a little different this time. All of the tracks on the disc, except for 'The Dragon Song,' were completely improvised, but with the use of forms (that were written out beforehand) and conducting (by all of the members of the group).

While not being based on any particular style or genre, the music, and the approach, was inspired by composers like Ornette Coleman, Charles Ives, Charles Mingus, and the Korean folk genre known as sinawi. The basic idea was for each member of the ensemble to improvise melodies, simultaneously, that contribute to a 'macro-melody,' if you will. In this way, unless someone is taking a solo, there isn't one 'lead' instrument with the others being in accompanying roles. Everyone is contributing to the overall shape, mood, feel, etc. Technically, the forms (5 different ones in all) were very simple (e.g. intro, A section, B section with solos, C section with solos, A section, end), and provided a structure for the group improvisation. The section transitions were conducted, as were various instrumental punctuations, swells, textures, etc.

'The Dragon Song' was a piece I wrote some years ago but never recorded. Except for the individual solos, all of the parts were written out. This piece was based directly on the sinawi genre of Korean folk music. Anyone not familiar with this genre of Korean music should run out to the record store and pick up a recording of it in the world music section. I think there are at least 2 or 3 different recordings that are available in the states.

ImprovisAsians: Can you tell us a little bit about your musical vision?

Jeff Song: 'My musical vision'.... hmmm... well, I guess you could say I'm committed to attempting to contribute something unique and personal to the existing body of music. I stress the word 'attempting' because whether or not someone has created something 'unique' can be subject to debate. I might think I'm contributing something new, but I clearly have my influences (that are inescapable), and they might be more or less obvious depending on the listener, and depending on how I'm feeling when I'm improvising or composing.

I guess the best that any artist can do is to try and find a way to express their unique personality in the most clear and unfettered way, allowing for influences to reveal themselves from time to time.

Maybe it's easier to talk about musical vision by talking about what I don't want to do with my music. I'm trying to not repeat what someone else has already done. If I thought that was all I was capable of doing, then I don't think I would feel so driven to record what I do and put it out there for people to hear. At the risk of sounding really opinionated, there's nothing worse than hearing the new 'young lions' of jazz put out records of standards. How does this contribute something new and different to the body of music that already exists? This contributes nothing to musical evolution, history, expression, and only takes up space at the record store that would be better used by artists who take risks. Does humanity really need another version of 'Body & Soul?' I don't want to hear someone play their versions of Louis Armstrong's or Miles Davis' music. I'd rather put on a Louis Armstrong or Miles Davis record. Not that I'm particularly crazy about what he does, but one could argue that Kenny G has actually contributed more to popular music than a lot of the so-called 'legit,' neo-conservative, suit-wearing, self-appointed keepers of the jazz flame.

Personally, the only valid reason I can see for recording a standard is if the artist is deconstructing it or recomposing it in a very personal and unique way. This is, of course, very subjective, and it's up to the listener to decide if something created is unique. It doesn't matter whether you call it 'classical' or 'jazz' or 'Asian American jazz' or 'rock' or 'creative music' or whatever. For me the important thing is to hear the music of the people who originally create it, regardless of stylistic pigeon holes. I'm interested in hearing someone's personality, ideas, and feelings. I don't really care what style the music is supposed to be in. So, again I stress the word 'attempt.' I'm attempting to not be redundant with what I'm contributing, but who's to say whether I'm successful or not.

ImprovisAsians: Where does your music come from?

Jeff Song: That is a hard question. My music comes from many places. If you're asking about influences, the list could go on and on. I started out as a classical cellist, and studied seriously for about 9 years. It was the bass guitar, however, that really set me free, musically. Rock music was, and still is, a big energizing force in what I do. I love Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Henry Threadgill, some of what John Zorn does is really great. My John Coltrane and Miles Davis records continue to bring me great pleasure. I've also been drawn to the work of many classical composers of this century- Ives, Schoenberg, Crumb, Bartok, even Arvo Part. And then there's the music of Korea. I didn't start listening to traditional Korean music until I was in graduate school. This wasn't something that was played around the house when I was growing up. Korean music, folk and court, is something I will continue to study and be moved by. I am not an expert in it, by any means, and prefer to think of myself as a rabid fan.

ImprovisAsians: Are you an immigrant son?

Both of my parents came to the states from Korea in the '50s. They met in the states, married, and had three kids. I'm the youngest. I was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, and raised in Des Moines, Iowa. I moved to Boston to go to college in 1982 and have been here ever since.

What's next?

Jeff Song: I'll be performing with Matt Turner (cello, piano) at the Chicago Asian American Jazz Festival in November. It's very exciting to see this happen in Chicago, and maybe this will motivate other cities to present Asian American creative music. We all have the SF Asian American Jazz Festival to thank for getting, and keeping, this ball rolling!

The Music & Arts label is releasing the next CD from Lowbrow sometime in the next few months. The title is 'The Other Pocket,' and it is music from the same sessions that resulted in 'Rules of Engagement.' In terms of performances, I'm playing in New York about once a month, either with my own group or as a sideman. I'm constantly trying to find ways and places to present my music that's not in a club (i.e. festivals, colleges and universities, museums, etc.). I like playing in clubs, but they're not the ideal environment for my group.

The Boston creative music scene leaves much to be desired. Not so much in terms of the pool of talent - there are wonderful musicians here - but in terms of the audiences (or lack thereof) and the venues (again, or lack thereof). There does exist a small but dedicated core of new music fans, but it's difficult to reach a broader audience that is willing to go to a club and be challenged.

Perhaps this problem is not unique to Boston. I can count on three fingers the places in Boston that regularly present new music, and none of them pay (or pay very poorly). The museums are great (and do pay), but they often present creative music as a novelty - maybe once a year. I have all but given up on Boston as a place to present my music, and I have been making monthly (on average) trips to New York to play since the beginning of 1996.

My kayagum teacher, Sang-Won Park, lives in New York, and I hope to see him more frequently in the next year - if he hasn't already given up on me!!

This interview was conducted October 15, 1996.

Jeff Song Discography:

  • Piece de Resistance, "Daylight Cries...", Human Voice, 1985
  • Thump!, "Put Your Foot Down!", Ashkelon Productions, 1990
  • Jeff Song/Matt Turner, "Love & Fear", O.O. Discs, 1992
  • Jeff Song & Matt Turner, "in vivo", Asian Improv Records, 1994
  • Dean Laabs & Jeff Song, "Invisible Maniac", Asian Improv Records,1994
  • Sounds Like 1996: Music by Asian American Artists, Innocent Eyes & Lenses,1996
  • Jeff Song & Lowbrow, "Rules of Engagement", Asian Improv Records
  • Jeff Song & Lowbrow, "The Other Pocket", Music & Arts

Published in In Motion Magazine June 4, 1997