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Having recently received his Master’s in Jazz Piano Performance from Manhattan School of Music, David Zheng is fully aware that the more traditional-minded folks in the jazz community might hear the boundary-pushing, electronica-and-beats-based fusion he stirs up on his debut album Loading … (Ropeadope) and wonder, as he muses, “What the hell is this?”Just as the multi-talented Rhode Island native switched gears from his classical training when he discovered jazz in middle school, he’s followed his passions wherever they’ve led him. For several years, his schedule was booked tight, attending school during the day and leading his New York City-based ensembles at night. He played straightahead acoustic jazz with a quartet in small clubs as well as more sonically adventurous hip-hop/neo-soul in residencies at Rockwood Music Hall and Arlene’s Grocery. And, when the COVID-19 lockdown hit, he embraced the opportunity to whip out his Ableton home-studio recording software. Merging jazz, R&B and hip-hop sensibilities, and featuring collaborations with and performances by top talents from a multitude of genres in the NYC music community, Loading … finds Zheng floating his jazzy sensibilities atop a sophisticated blend of hard-hitting dance-floor grooves, intricately textured electronics and dreamy atmospheres. In many ways, the 10-track collection is the manifestation of his graduate thesis, which explored the relationship between jazz and dance music. Make no mistake, Zheng has serious jazz cred. The one-time trumpeter studied with Blue Note recording artist Kendrick Scott and MacArthur Genius Fellow Miguel Zenón. His mentor was gospel pianist, vocalist and music director Damien Sneed, who’s worked with Aretha Franklin and Wynton Marsalis. During his undergrad years at Princeton, where he graduated magna cum laude in 2014, he was heavily involved in the Downbeat-award-winning jazz program there. And he’s opened shows for Chris Potter, John Pizzarelli, Marc Cary and Terence Blanchard, among others. Yet, as he honed his distinctly cosmopolitan sensibilities, Zheng found himself listening more and more to artists who were pushing the contemporary boundaries of jazz. It all started when a friend took him to a show by keyboardist BIGYUKI, who got the crowd up and dancing with his swirl of jazz, classical, hop-hop, soul, rock, dance and electronica. Zheng’s vibe is also heavily influenced by a young generation of genre-blending innovators including KNOWER, GoldLink, Pomo, Young Franco, Channel Tres, Duckwrth and Tom Misch.
[caption id="attachment_37449" align="alignleft" width="1024"] David Zheng (Photo: Clubgroovenyc.com)[/caption]
“The concept for Loading … grew out of my extensive jazz background and heavy immersion in the beat music scene in New York,” Zheng says. “For all the jazz I had been hearing for the past 10 years, I felt like the one element that was missing was dance music. It had been largely ignored in the jazz community. Robert Glasper sparked the neo-soul/hip-hop jazz fusion movement, but for too long I felt that my love for jazz and the excitement I felt listening to dance music were totally separate worlds. Until I heard BIGYUKI and what some of these other great artists were doing, I wouldn’t have had the courage to do an album like this.“I think what makes it unique is that I’m not just experimenting with a mix of dance music and jazz, but I really wanted this to be an album that incorporated all different strands of Black American Music, a term that Nicholas Payton has coined, from jazz and blues to R&B, neo-soul, disco, house and hip-hop," he adds. “I wanted this to be a dance-oriented album that incorporated different strands of Black American Music, from jazz and blues to R&B, neo-soul and hip-hop. It’s a very different experience when I’m producing compared to the live jazz context, thinking more about the structure and sound quality as opposed to just notes. As a producer, with the help of my incredible mixer Joel Gardella, I was focused primarily on sound design and sound quality.”For Zheng, the artist moniker ZENG is not simply a culturally neutral appropriation of his Chinese surname. It’s a way to establish his brand as the leader of an evolving musical collective that spotlights his dynamic collaborators as much as himself. Created mostly remotely during COVID, the project allowed his collaborators to create and record their parts at their own unhurried pace. Jazz ensembles usually thrive on live interaction in a studio setting, but Zheng found the lockdown-imposed file exchange/feedback process quite efficient. The result is an inspiring demonstration of the fact that, as he says, “when we’re apart, we’re still together. Music is the therapeutic anchor that comforted and uplifted us all during this difficult time. ‘CNS.als’ is a perfect example. “I had performed it with my live band and wanted to create a dance production version. So I made a skeleton demo and sent it to [vocalist] J. Hoard, who sent me back vocal tracks of the melody I had written, and took liberties with the incredible lyrics. Then I sent what we had to Braxton Cook for some sax parts, and finally to [vocalist] Joy Elysse, who sang and wrote lyrics to the bridge. Like all the tracks, a total collaborative effort.”In whatever way listeners choose to experience the music on Loading … , they’re sure to notice the quirky way the titles are presented, from the opening track “STARGAZING.als” to the closer “RED LIGHT.als.” “The all caps and .als at the end of each song is the file format for Abelton, the program I created the beats in. I put them there because I want people to see the album as I saw it in my actual workflow when I was creating it. And the fact that they still have the file attachment at the end implies they are still works-in-progress, which is how I basically view all my music.”Zheng is a work in progress himself, releasing his new album while completing his medical training at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. His academic research at Princeton, MIT, Johns Hopkins, Yale and the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine explored the connections of music with cognitive neuroscience, psychiatry and neurology. Rather than choose music over medicine, he can envision a path for himself like that of Richard Kogan — a clinical professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical Center and the Artistic Director of the Weill Cornell Music and Medicine Program, Kogan’s also a concert pianist.“I always remember what [vibraphonist] Stefon Harris, former Associate Dean and Director of the Jazz Arts program at MSM said: ‘The heart of jazz is empathy,’ ” says Zheng. “Underlying both the cerebral and spontaneous, uninhibited creative side of jazz is the interpersonal relationship between band members and those musical conversations. To me, psychiatry and jazz are two sides of the same coin. My goal is to have my own practice and stay involved in the local music scene, while producing more albums like Loading… that involve the great talents of that community.” Now PlayingMichael Lington, Alone Together (Peak)
Early in the COVID-19 lockdown, veteran contemporary-jazz saxophonist Michael Lington hooked up with the StageIt platform for a weekly state-of-the art livestream from his home studio. Performances included split-screen duets with fellow smooth jazz artists (Dave Koz, Nick Colionne, Brian Culbertson, Boney James) and and an array of genre-crossing vocalists (Sy Smith, Kenny Lattimore, Chris Walker, Javier Colon and Billy Dean). This perfectly and poignantly titled collection, which features the audio portion of some of Lington’s most compelling duets, offers longtime fans an opportunity to experience choice tracks from his two-decade-plus career in a fresh, inspiring and technologically of-the-moment setting.