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February 19, 2014IM -
In a sense, that career started when the San Francisco-raised musician first picked up the cello in third grade, and then the trombone a year later. “I tried to use my knowledge of both instruments to complete each other’s spectrums,” Leong says, explaining that as he progressed in his musical training, he taught himself to apply jazz techniques to the cello and classical techniques to the trombone. The study of two different instruments laid the foundation for a career that would revolve around “cross-pollination” between different instruments and genres.
While still in high school, Leong expanded his repertoire to include pop, R&B, and electronic music, backing big-name artists such as Whitney Houston, Barry White, and Björk, when they made tour stops on the West Coast. It was the opportunity to be hired for those sorts of jobs that encouraged Leong to join the AFM. “One of my first music teachers was one of the top contractors in the Bay area, so when visiting artists needed a big brass section or big string section, I started getting those calls,” he remembers. “Basically, as soon as we were old enough to drive, my brother [who plays violin and trumpet] and I would travel around to play all sorts of shows.”
Even though he was already finding a great deal of success gigging on the West Coast, Leong knew that he still had plenty to learn. He moved across the country to attend the Manhattan School of Music, where he studied both classical cello and jazz trombone and also honed the compositional skills that he would soon put to good use. “They definitely put you through a lot of hoops and rings in school to give you the whole experience,” he says. “I learned a little bit about arranging, a little bit about electronic music, a little bit about traditional classical composition—a little bit about everything.”
But Leong’s most important lessons were learned outside of the classroom, where he began to experiment more and more with improvisation, while also continuing to find work within the popular music scene. “When I moved to New York, one of the first things I did was studio work with a lot of different artists that were coming out in the hip-hop world and the Latin pop world,” he says. Those artists included people like Kanye West, Lil’ Kim, and Marc Anthony. “Watching the way they operated, I found a lot of points that I admired, but I also found a lot of points that I wanted to improve upon.”
By 2005, Leong decided that he had enough ideas of his own to begin work on an album. His 2006 debut, Leaving New York, is a blend of jazz, funk, and rock, while the 2007 follow-up, Anthems of Life, takes on a more hip-hop edge, with most tracks featuring guest emcees. “I feel like there is no choice but to evolve because of the continuously changing nature of the music industry,” Leong says.
While he has always used an array of instruments to construct his creative and refreshing sound, Leong has now evolved once again, forming a fixed band. MILK & JADE by Dana Leong includes drums, keyboards, and rap vocals in addition to Leong’s amplified cello, trombone, and laptop-generated electronic beats. The band completed a European tour this past summer, winning several awards at different jazz festivals, and also released an album compiled from a live concert in Sweden.
The band name originated from a conversation that Leong had with an older gentleman he met while on a bus going across town in New York City. After realizing that he had seen Leong perform once at the Saratoga Jazz Festival in upstate New York, the admiring stranger was able to perfectly articulate the character of his music.
Leong remembers, “He said, ‘You know what I like about musicians like yourself? You have the strength and confidence to play with a real hard, jade articulation and really push those notes out there with an impenetrable energy. And then, you can turn around and have a nice, smooth, melodic sound—that milk in your sound. That’s a real, complete musician, and that’s what I look for.’” Leong couldn’t have agreed more.
“I wanted to present an all-star hip-hop group that could bring a sound that would just tear down the walls, but then also bring out beauty with the melodic side of music; especially by using the cello, which has the singing quality of the human voice,” he explains. “You have to have both sides to complete the gamut.”
Another evolution that Leong has made over the years is to take greater control over the production process, with his very own recording studio. “I realized I loved the process enough to collect my own equipment, so now we can rehearse in the same place we record, and I can do all the editing and mixing in-house,” he says. “It’s almost like night and day from where I started.” He isn’t putting his earlier days entirely behind him, though. “I have to remind myself to look back and enjoy my progress,” Leong says. “I’m one of those people who always loves having something new to be excited about, so I’m always listening to my newest creations and twisting and turning them, critiquing, and improving them. But sometimes I have to take a second and look back and think, oh yeah, I did do that, and I should appreciate it.”
Although Leong got his start playing for some very famous artists, these days he’s more interested in working with people who are not as well recognized, but who perhaps should be. That’s what spurred his latest project, Life After Dark, which is both a documentary about various New York musicians and an EP that features those same artists on its tracks.
“I think that now is a good time to start culminating all of the experiences that I’ve had in New York City,” says Leong. “The thing I find I regret the most is, when I run into someone I know and admire and the most we’re able to say to each other is, ‘Let’s do something—let’s work together, let’s play a gig.’ And then it just fades into the atmosphere. So now, with my own recording studio, I figured there was no better way to keep my word than to start this collaborative series.”
Through the project, Leong was able to reconnect with many musicians who he feels “bring a unique twist to their art form,” and draw them together as a community. That’s something that he also appreciates about his AFM membership. “I find it important to be aware of current conditions and who else is in your community. The AFM is one of the longest standing, most effective organizations for musicians,” he says. “United we stand, divided we fall; strength in numbers—all of those sayings apply.”
Leong also quotes a familiar saying to express the value of the teaching that he does at workshops and residencies across the country. “You hear this all the time, but the best way to learn something is to teach it,” he says. “I learn so much from absolute beginners, through the questions and issues they have. It helps me revisit my own fundamentals.”
Of course, Leong influences his students just as much as they influence him, teaching musicians of all genres how to incorporate technology into their performances. “That’s something that I find the younger generation has the intuition to do,” he says. “Their skills just need a little basic refining to really take it to the next level.”
It’s clear that Leong will continue to take things to the next level in his own career, as he looks back at what he’s already done and uses that history to figure out where he will go next. “Ideally, I want to create music that is my own favorite music to listen to,” he says. “That’s really tough, because people are their own worst critics. It’s like not wanting to see yourself in a photo or in a video, or not wanting to hear a recording of your own voice. But that’s what I work to overcome and grow above.”