and you’ll never be alone,
Each day, Each Night,
We pray our dreams take flight,
Cuz I need you, and you need me,
And together we stand for unity.
So goes the hook of “The Forum”, a song off of Dana Leong’s latest album, Milk & Jade. The artist and his multi-talented collaborators celebrated the CD release at Symphony Space on Friday, March 5 with an audience filled with fans and friends. It was a night that rejoiced in unlikely unions, the chance for long-time listeners and first-time initiates to enjoy Leong and his unique blend of hip-hop, jazz, electronic and classical music. MOCA staff and Young Professionals were invited to attend the event (a great YP member perk!) and I felt lucky to join the crowd. Dana Leong in concert is unlike any other musician I have seen—he is incredibly inventive, weaving his personal history (classically-trained cellist and trombonist, of Chinese and Japanese descent) with his artistic influences (jazz and pop greats, local NYC MCs, film and fashion), to create a new kind of performance. With a foot propped on his electric cello, he bobbed and moved, occasionally grabbing the mic to emphasize a lyric or reaching to hit his laptop to introduce a new electronic element to the sonic landscape. His biography includes a mention about his work with artists including Dafnis Prieto, Ryuichi Sakamoto, DJ Spooky, Wynton Marsalis, Yoko Ono and Kanye West, and I think this best describes him: if all those amazing and disparate artists got together and had a baby (just go with me on this one), it would be Dana Leong. He is more than one influence, he is more than one style, he is even more than one instrument (and somehow manages to play many at once.) He unites cultures and musical styles in a new way, and makes it wholly his own.
His guests that evening were equally talented. Two artists performed live who are not on the album. Hagar Ben Ari rocked out on the bass for much of the evening, and added a wistful solo to the opening of “Opus One ‘Why I Cry’”, a hauntingly beautiful song about the tragedies of human life. It is rare that electric bass is played as a melodic (rather than strictly rhythmic) instrument in concert, and it made me wish for more of that. Jason Mills’ emphatic drums lent a fun energy to the evening, and it comes as no surprise that he is a former member of the touring show STOMP. Core Rhythm, the anchoring MC of the evening, is Leong’s most frequent collaborator on Milk & Jade projects, and their chemistry is apparent. It is a pleasure to watch fellow musicians enjoy each other’s work and processes, and these two clearly work well together. Core Rhythm’s lyrics are clever and deep at the same time, and while it can be tough to decipher those lyrics in a live show, the audience got a copy of the words in their programs, which helped quite a bit. They were joined by artists Johnny Voltik, Homeboy Sandman and MoeRoc, and my one complaint about the evening was that the sound made it difficult to understand their politically- and socially-aware lyrics. (This problem is solved on the CD, thankfully.) I also thoroughly enjoyed the popping and locking of dancer Tommy “Hypno” Chan, who did a fantastic and fun robot to a song that combined human and technological sounds for a truly modern performance. As a nod to his roots, Dana closed the show with a cover of “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke, with his trombone taking the melody and original lyrics by Core Rhythm. It is a testament to his training and his artistry that I had tears in my eyes; his trombone sounded like a human lament, and it made for a powerful end to the show.
It was an eye-opening, enjoyable evening, and I look forward to hearing more out of Dana Leong and his collaborators. MOCA and Dana plan to unite for a future event, so please stay tuned. You’ll be glad you did.
Visitor Services Manager