For Guitarist Tom Chang, Opening Up Is A Constant Process

Jun 8, 2014

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Again you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. To call Tom Chang a jazz guitarist feels inadequate. He's gorged on rock music, played with R&B singer Luther Vandross, studied to the feet of South Indian percussionists. The man is tinkered with so many different styles, it's hard to say where he fits - as if any musician had to fit anywhere. Take this example, the first track on Tom Chang's debut album is a nod to "Spinal Tap" - "Goes To Eleven." At the risk of being obvious - you should play this loud.

TOM CHANG: (Laughing) Yeah, that's the idea. It's sort of an image to all of the, you know, the hard rock heavy metal bands I used to listen to when I was a younger kid. So, yeah, it's meant to be played at 11 if not 12.


RATH: Talk about your background a little bit. You were born in South Korea but you moved to Canada when you were pretty young. Did you listen to a lot of rock and roll growing up in Toronto?

CHANG: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, my sisters, I guess, were the earliest influences. I'd wake up to all of the music blasting over the stereo. So I got exposed at a very early age to the Beatles and Joni Mitchell and all the great bands of the late 60's and early-mid 70's. And, you know, I started getting into music later on, actually, when we moved to Vancouver. So that's what picking up the guitar and immersing myself - more or less learning rock and all of the guys that I really loved hearing of the time.

RATH: So you started out as a rock guitarist?

CHANG: Yeah, well more or less. I mean, the person I studied with actually trained me classically. That was great, learning how to read music and get a sense of pitch and all that sort of stuff. And then that was the music that really influenced me and I really had a passion for and gravitated towards. So that's when I really started getting into rock and then, as an extension, blues. All those guys like Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, they were all quite blues influence. So eventually, I made that leap.

RATH: Yeah. And we can hear a lot of these influences in your playing. Like the track "Barcodes."


RATH: Am I hearing some Zeppelin there? The top really makes me thinks of "Dazed And Confused," except for that sort of weird cross rhythm that you have going on there.

CHANG: I guess, you know, I don't know where all the stuff comes from. It just sort of seeps in. So definitely some Led Zeppelin, definitely Jeff Beck, Bill Frisell is a big influence. And I kind of wrote that piece for this dance company and they actually never used it. But at the time I was heavily listening to Bill Frisell and was quite influenced by his stuff. Definitely some contemporary classical influences. Just trying to break up the stuff so it wasn't just straight blues. I mean, it's in seven, so that kind of throws a little wrench in it...

RATH: Odd meter.

CHANG: Exactly. But without trying to sound, you know, like an odd meter. That's the whole idea.


RATH: I'm talking to guitarist Tom Chang about his album "Tongue And Groove." Speaking of odd rhythms, South Indian music plays a big part and you wouldn't know it to listen to but how did you discover South Indian music?

CHANG: That's a good question. A friend of my - a very good friend of mine who's actually a finance banker. He - I guess he just started picking up Southern Indian CDs. And this guy had a great year for music. And he actually started studying with Subash Chandran who is on the CD - on my CD.

RATH: The great South Indian percussionist.

CHANG: Exactly. He - and it was just by pure chance - he was at the time my friend was living in New York City. And he would go to New Jersey where all these families - these Brahman families would sponsor all these great Southern Indian classical musicians and bring them over from Jeni. And it just so happened, at the time, that Subash was there and my friend hooked up with him. And, you know, shortly after that I got into it through him. Actually, not shortly. It took another 10 years for me to get into it. But I eventually saw the light. And yeah it's been a huge influence on me - the rhythmic aspect and just the whole music in and of itself. Its incredible music.

RATH: Well let's hear a little bit of Chandran because he's on the title track of this album - "Tongue And Groove." And what we're going to hear is actually he starts off not playing percussion, but singing.


CHANG: What he's doing is what's considered vocal percussion. It's called conical. And it's sort of - I wouldn't say riffing but he's singing and it's a vocal percussion solo.

RATH: You're jamming on it right?

CHANG: Yeah. What he's doing is he's improvising on what's called a courve (ph). It's his rhythmic cell. And he taught it to me. And I actually just put pitches to it and I found right away I just had a composition. There's a very definitive structure to these courves.


RATH: So in the music that you've studied and covered, you bounced from rock to blues to jazz, classical, South Indian music...

CHANG: I love it all.

RATH: It seems like you're always adding to your style. So, Tom, are you still hungry? Is there something new for your next inspiration?

CHANG: Oh yeah. Absolutely. I mean right now I'm actually studying counterpoint with a teacher in New York City. And we're actually going through the Fook system as well as studying the Schoenberg harmonic system. So I don't think it ever ends. I think it's something that you just constantly need to challenge yourself and open yourself up to new sources. Absolutely. Otherwise I think you just sort of stagnate. And in this scene, in particular New York City, there's just so much going on. So why not avail yourself?

RATH: That's guitarist Tom Chang. His debut album is called "Tongue And Groove." Tom, thank you.

CHANG: Thanks for having me.

RATH: And for Sunday that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.