Cory Wong’s Funky Pep Rally

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Wong interviews other guitarists he admires on his Wong Notes podcast.

(Photo: Galen Higgins)

A modern day practitioner of the “chanking” rhythm guitar method developed by James Brown sideman Jimmy Nolen — championed by The Meters’ Leo Nocentelli and carried on by Nile Rodgers, Paul Jackson Jr., Dean Brown, Hiram Bullock and John Scofield (who actually recorded a funky instrumental called “Chank” on A Go Go, his 1997 collaboration with Medeski, Martin & Wood) — Minneapolis-bred Cory Wong is less interested in showy single-note flurries than solid pocket playing.

“When I was young, I was playing high-velocity, energetic punk rock music and ska music,” he said. “My favorite bands as a kid were Green Day and Blink 182. They played with so much force. I remember videos of Green Day, just watching Billie Joe Armstrong really hammering his guitar, his arm moving up and down super fast. Or going to see punk bands like Rancid hitting hard and going fast. And if you watch the way that I play now, it’s kind of like somebody from a punk rock band playing Nile Rodgers or Prince guitar parts.”

You can hear that aggressive, clean-toned Stratocaster attack on Wong’s recently released The Power Station Tour, a live document from a 2022 tour with his ultra-tight, nine-piece horn band. A cursory listen might strike some old-school funk fans as a present-day take on Average White Band, The Brecker Brothers Band or Tower of Power. But the pristine, tight-knit sound is only part of the package with a Cory Wong show. In concert he stalks the stage on spidery legs with unbounded energy, mouth agape, like an exuberant cheerleader at a funky pep rally. Add in the element of balloons (with strobing lights inside) being tossed around the crowd, like at a recent Brooklyn Bowl gig, and you’ve got a real rave.

“I’ve always been an entertaining guy,” said the 38-year-old guitarist-composer-producer-bandleader. “And when I play live, I feel like I’m somewhat of a conduit for the general public to get an idea of what guitar music or instrumental music is. I’m giving them music with different chord changes than they’re used to or different rhythms and types of melodies and chord extensions than they may have heard. So I’m kind of a gateway to jazz for some people. And then on the other side, I’m being a gateway for the jazzers into the idea of entertainment. Because a lot of jazz folks just get up and play their music and they don’t think about it in terms of a show that gets put on. And I feel like I can really come with an entertainment value that’s also a little more purposeful in the way that it’s presented. Because the whole thing for me is that it’s just a total blast to play.”

A member of the extremely popular and slightly off-beat collective Vulfpeck, Wong also fronts the offshoot group The Fearless Flyers (with Vulpeck bassist Joe Dart, Snarky Puppy guitarist Mark Lettieri and drummer Nate Smith). But of late he has been enjoying some extended road time fronting his namesake group, which has grown to 12 pieces.

A product of the fabled Minneapolis music scene, Wong grew up with the sounds of Jesse Johnson, Morris Day and the Time, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and, of course, Prince. In fact, he had a memorable encounter with The Purple One that may have sent him on his current musical path. As he recalled, “I was playing in this group called Dr. Mambo’s Combo down at a club called Bunker’s in downtown Minneapolis, and one night we got word, ‘OK, Prince is coming down. He wants to see how everybody plays.’ So I’m playing, I see him walk into the room and then I really start digging into my Prince thing, trying to sound just like him. And (drummer) Michael Bland and (bassist) Sunny T, who are the rhythm section of Prince’s New Power Generation, both kind of look at me and go, ‘Hey, knock it off!’ And I’m like, ‘What do you mean?’ And Michael says, ‘If Prince came down here to listen to somebody sound like Prince, he’d just get up here and play. So quit trying to sound like him and start sounding like you.’

“And that was interesting to me,” he continued. “It sort of gave me permission to do my own thing. So I leaned into it. I’m doing my clean Strat sound, doing the double-stop thing, doing the really rhythmic, percussive thing, like Nile Rodgers meets punk rock. And after I get off the stage, Prince comes up and shakes my hand and he says, ‘Wow, you got a really nice sound … a unique sound. Nice job. Keep it up.’ And still to this day, any time that I have a bad day thinking about my guitar playing, if I’m sick of hearing myself, I just think back to that moment that was kind of a catalyst to really help me discover my sound.”

After his youthful infatuation with Green Day and punk music, Wong drifted into a deep Pat Metheny phase that lasted through his college years. “I spent so much deliberate practice time learning the Metheny thing,” he said. “I wanted to be Pat Metheny.” But he also checked out John Scofield, Joe Pass and George Benson.

Today Wong’s style is a composite of all those players along with the Minneapolis funk style he came up playing and bits and pieces of what he culled from his father’s massive record collection while growing up. “He had the entire CTI catalog, the entire ECM catalog, a lot of classic Blue Note albums. He had all kinds of jazz fusion stuff. … I found it all so interesting because it had a similar energy to the music that I was really into.

“So it’s been a journey over the last maybe seven years of honing in my voice on the instrument and trying to continue to develop it and mature it and make sure that it doesn’t become a meme of itself. Because sometimes when you have something that’s very signature, sometimes it can all of a sudden, after many years of doing it, begin to sound like a parody of itself.”

Aside from hitting the road with his band, playing 150 concerts a year, the guitarist also hosts his Wong Notes podcast, where he interviews other guitarists he admires. There are 70 episodes, to date, available on Spotify, Apple and Google.

“These guys are my heroes, and there are questions that have been burning in my brain since I was a teenager,” he said. “And to have a podcast now, I finally get to ask them.” DB



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June 2023
James Brandon Lewis
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