When four of the best backup musicians in the Twin Cities kept meeting each other in the studio, they quickly noticed their common musical interests. Those gigs led guitarist Cory Wong, bassist Yohannes Tona, pianist Kevin Gastonguay and drummer Petar Janjic to form Foreign Motion, a new jazz fusion ensemble with a diverse and international vibe.
Tonight and Saturday at St. Paul’s Artists’ Quarter, the group debuts its new release “In Flight.”
MPR News arts reporter Chris Roberts and I sat down this week with Wong and Tona to discuss the group and its music. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation.
David Cazares: You’re an international group. Can you explain what makes you international and whether that affects how you play and deliver music?
Cory Wong: I feel like it very much has to do with the way that we play and the way that we approach what we do. Our rhythm section is the foreign part of Foreign Motion, I guess you could say. Yohannes is from Ethiopia. Petar is from Serbia. Kevin is from Burnsville. I grew up in Minnesota but I was born in Poughkeepsie, New York.
Chris Roberts: Would you classify this group, this ensemble, as world music or world jazz?
Yohannes Tona: There’s definitely an element to that. [In] my playing, just like my talking, you know, there’s a little bit of accent. The same thing I hear with Petar’s approach. You can clearly hear in it in the song “Kings,” which is [named for] one of Serbia’s towns …that element of world music. And most of my compositions also have that background.
Chris Roberts: I guess when I ask you about world music I’m not even sure what it is. That’s such a huge expanse of artistic territory. Is it just kind of this nebulous world term that applies to something that isn’t distinctly American?
Cory Wong: That’s a very good observation on that fact that “world music” is like a totally arbitrary classification because anything that’s outside of American popular music is world music. The total opposite end of the spectrum is that we’re jazz music, which is a completely American art form. So maybe we have a little bit of an identity crisis as far as what genre we’re in. [As for] fusion music, I have Chinese heritage and Irish heritage but I also connect very much with the Peruvian culture. Yohannes is Ethiopian. Kevin is French, German, whatever, you know all this European stuff. And Petar is this Eastern European, Serbian to the core in so many ways. And all of us have our influences musically and culturally that bring together what forms this music.
David Cazares: Fusion gets a bad rap. But as a child of the ’70s, I remember some excellent fusion, and the work of some great rock bands of the era. I hear a lot of that and I hear a lot of funk in what you do – and the best of all those traditions, not the worst. Are you trying to in a sense revive some really great musical elements that maybe have been lost along the way in the last few decades?
Cory Wong: I would say yes, but not necessarily intentionally. It wasn’t our original thought. These are all original songs that we play, we’ve written and it’s just what our passion is. This is the music that’s in our hearts and what we love and what we love to play together. And I guess as a byproduct of that, you could call it somewhat of a call to a revival. We give ourselves the freedom to be who we are and say whatever we want for as long as we want. A lot of our compositions are shorter than a lot of typical jazz records because we have an understanding of people’s attention spans and for ourselves as far as how much we need to say in a given amount of time.
Chris Roberts: But we should definitely emphasize jazz improvisation in the Foreign Motion equation. You guys are improvisers, first and foremost, in this group, in this ensemble, right?
Yohannes Tona: We often play backing the same pop artists. And in between songs we just break into something crazy that people don’t understand just for fun for maybe 30 seconds before the band leader turns around. It’s like we never really had a plan to be such a band or anything. Our identity is gonna hopefully become clear to us as well as the listeners as we do more.
David Cazares: You all are in the elite of improvisers in the Twin Cities. And sometimes you all improvise simultaneously. Is it a conversation that you intended to happen or is it just the way it develops on stage?
Cory Wong: Yes, it absolutely is a conversation thing. There’s somebody who’s got the attention of the room at the given moment but there’s an underlying support system of people either listening or understanding that there’s going to be response to it. That’s a big part of improvisation. Our music is compositionally based. But built into those compositions is so much room for improvisation. So, I might be saying something, and I’ve got this on my mind and I’m going to say it. And Yohannes and Petar in the rhythm section might say, “Let’s take it here.” And they might push me to continue to go where I’m going or they might push me to go in a little bit of a different direction. The beautiful thing is that it is a very dynamic thing. It’s always moving. The songs are never performed in the exact same way. That’s part of who we are as a band. We need to listen to each other. And that’s what makes it work.
Chris Roberts: How did you find each other?
Yohannes Tona: It was from playing with different groups and different jobs around the Twin Cities. You just keep coming across this fella that you just met at the other gig. So we kept running into each other. And we have a certain element of, I think, even in our music, of being youthful and you know musically a little rebelliousness to what is called standard. Like you know, we’ll be playing, somebody will be soloing and me and Petar would be trying to throw each other off just for fun, to see who’s going to lose the beat for a second. Those kind of fun things would make you want to play with that guy again.
Cory Wong: We didn’t really intend to be a band the first time that we got together. I do a lot of writing for TV and film and a friend of mine is a filmmaker. I did a bunch of music for one of his films. He called me one day and said, “I’m going to be in the Twin Cities. Do you have a band, do you have a gig that I can record?” I said, “No, but let me call some of these guys that I just played a gig with last week and see if they’re interested.” We just played some songs that I had written and it went over amazingly. Then eventually we thought, wow we should really make a band out of this. And we started bringing songs for each other.
David Cazares: Were you trying to offer something from different variations of jazz and rock? Did you have any road map when you made the album?
Cory Wong: We all have different writing styles. And you know, on this album, there’s 13 songs. But there’s probably a hundred between the four of us as far as material that we could bring to the band. We wanted to have a good mix of tunes that feel a little bit more straight-ahead, that feel a little more from the funk genre, that feel a little more like an aggressive fusion-type thing. We wanted to have some ballads, show different sides of ourselves.
Chris Roberts: When you talk about fusion, I know we think of it as kind of a genre. And we think of it being a fusion of jazz and rock sensibilities. What do you feel you are fusing when you play that style?
Cory Wong: Well, I think it goes beyond just genres. We’ve talked about, being kind of a pseudo-world band. We’re fusing cultures of who we are as people and where we’ve come from. We fuse our personalities. We’re kind of half extroverted, half introverted as far as who we are as a band and our personalities fuse together, our cultures fuse together. We’re also fusing funk, gospel, jazz, straight-ahead jazz, modern jazz, pop music.
There’s one song on here, called “Ellie,” which I wrote for my daughter. That one is like a prime example of fusion for me in a totally different sense than people normally think of fusion. I originally wrote it as a lullaby on the piano. We were at the Mall of America, day before Christmas Eve, and it was mayhem. I was one of the thousands of dudes who was last-minute shopping and I was pushing my one-month-old daughter around in this stroller. And she was in this complete intimate moment of just quite sleep, just as intimate as it gets for a child. I pictured this lullaby that I was writing, just a solo piano thing, which is this world that she was in and then this outside world around her where there was so much chaos. So I wrote a song that has just a lullaby and then around it the rest of the band is very chaotic but at the same time supports and is not intruding on what’s happening within the lullaby.
David Cazares: It seems like you’re doing something akin to film making when you put together a recording like this because it’s storytelling in a way that transports you somewhere.
Cory Wong: Yeah. Things that inspire me to write are typically landscape, visual things. I usually am most inspired when I see something and I hear something to go along with it. I do a lot of writing for film and for TV, that kind of stuff. And maybe that is what always triggers my brain for that kind of thing. But those kind of moments, those kind of delicate places, or those kind of chaotic places are what usually end up being the genesis for a musical idea, which I then take and either explain to the band or just write it down and play it and let them take it to another place. So like with “Ellie,” I had that idea in my head about the lullaby. And I told Kevin to play the piano part as a lullaby. Everybody else is going to be playing crazy around you, but just play as gentle as you can because that’s what it is. These other guys took the song to a completely new place by the way that they played it.
Chris Roberts: The need to communicate to each other in a different format is kind of what brought this band together. But what are you communicating to an audience?
Yohannes Tona: That’s kind of a hard thing in, as it happens, because what we communicate can’t really necessarily work for our audience. There’s an urgency in being the best that you can, in mastering your instrument and playing difficult things. We don’t want our aggressiveness and our rudeness musically, and our rebelliousness, to come across. It definitely works for those who are looking for something real, in terms of “this is how you play.”
David Cazares: Often a band is together first and then they go off and do their individual work. But you’ve all done you’re individual projects first and then you’ve come together to form a great band. Does that change things? Are you better prepared than you would have been otherwise?
Cory Wong: We still work as independent artists for other people and we still have our own independent projects as well. I think this way we just finally combined forces and formed something that we can all unite to really present as something bigger than who we are. It might sound cheesy or whatever, but it really is something beyond just the four of us each individually putting in our own songs or our own input or our own music. It really is us coming together to try to unite to a specific idea to present a form of music — and a form of entertainment – to be something bigger than just my group or Yohannes’s group, or Petar’s thing or Kevin’s thing.
Chris Roberts: Hearing you tell the story of this band, it sounds like also just artistic liberation for you, a chance for that.
Cory Wong: Absolutely. That’s a big part of what this is, being able to come together and say what we want to say and really almost no holds barred. No rules. But having a common understanding of certain things. A lot of jazz artists, I feel, lose the entertainment quality of their performances or lose their connection with their audience as far as what’s going to translate or what’s not going to translate.
Everything is completely liberating. Whatever we want to do, whatever we want to say. When it’s Johannes’ turn to solo and he wants to go somewhere, there’s no reason for me to put restrictions on him or for Petar to put restrictions on him. We’re going to let him go. And whatever he wants to say he’s gonna say and we’re going to support him in that. In a group effort, what’s so great is we can all push each other in different directions and not have to worry about somebody saying, “Don’t go there.”
Yohannes Tona: We know that we’re not the best players in the world. So we have to be the best that we can — just to push our limits and to go further. Even in top 40 bands, we’ll be playing a song from Earth Wind and Fire. We might throw something [in] that’s really unusual but try to maintain that freshness and eagerness to do something more than what you can normally. So every gig, that’s how we would like to approach it.
If You Go
Foreign Motion CD release
When: 9 p.m. tonight and Saturday
Where: Artists’ Quarter, 408 St. Peter Street, St. Paul