Best known for his thrifty guitarwork in the midwestern funk ensemble Vulfpeck, Cory Wong is excited to announce the release of his sophomore solo record, The Optimist, due out August 17th, 2018. Pre-order is going on now: www.corywongmusic.com.
Why The Optimist? At age 16, after suffering a concussive head injury, Wong had been told he had two weeks to live. Or maybe he would be fine. The doctors honestly weren’t sure why his right arm kept going numb, but following a month-and-a-half of visits and tests and second opinions, their best guess was that he had a blood clot with the potential to reach his brain at any moment. If that happened, death would be nearly instantaneous.
“‘No way I’m having a blood clot,’” the guitarist remembers saying to his 16-year-old self. “I’d worked way too hard to get my license and hang out with my friends that summer and nothing was going to get me down. I decided that if the worst might happen, all I could do was spend my remaining days doing what made me happy and spreading as much joy as I could in the world.”
Wong survived, of course, and while his symptoms eventually faded away, the relentlessly defiant brand of optimism he cultivated that summer never did. In fact, nearly two decades later, it forms the bedrock of his ecstatic new album, The Optimist. Recorded in spontaneous sessions with a series of all-star lineups, the collection showcases both Wong’s prodigious instrumental virtuosity and his broad emotional reach. The songs are profoundly funky, infectiously joyful, and as playful as they are peerless. Paired with his quirky music videos, the tracks feel retro and futuristic all at once. At a time of bitter political strife and deep cultural divisions, Wong has crafted something truly unifying: an album that delights in the pleasures of human connection and revels in the limitless possibility of artistic collaboration.
2017 was the first time the guitarist decided to step into the spotlight on his own, releasing a self-titled debut album that introduced the world to his quirky blend of high-octane musicianship and lo-fi visuals. The Current praised his “colorful, 90’s-infused aesthetic,” while The Irish Times described the music as “impeccable,” likening it to “the Swampers, Sly Stone, Weather Report and maybe a touch of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils.” Wong’s never been one to rest on his laurels, though, and the dust hadn’t even settled on his debut before the wheels had already begun turning on his sophomore effort.
“I got a call one day from Ricky Peterson, who’s played organ with David Sanborn and George Benson,” says Wong. “He was coming to town, so I told him I had some tunes I was working on and we should get together and record them the following week. The only problem was I didn’t actually have any songs and I didn’t have a session booked.”
Ever the optimist, Wong willed it all into existence in just six days, penning a batch of brand new tracks and wrangling his longtime mentors from Prince’s band, drummer Michael Bland and bassist Sonny Thompson, to form a rhythm section. After the success of the initial session, Wong put together another day of recording in Minneapolis with an entirely new group, and then captured a third session in Nashville with the Ben Rector Band backing him up. All the while, Wong was sending the tracks off to collaborators near and far, including German star Marti Fischer (who recorded from Berlin), British singer KATIS (who recorded from London), and local legends The Hornheads.
“The Hornheads are best known as Prince’s horn section,” explains Wong, “and their leader, Michael Nelson, did most of the horn arrangements for Prince. The guys are all 20-30 years older than us, but we fit right in as friends because they love seeing young musicians with such passion. Michael told me that after Prince died, it was really fun for him to find a new artist to work with on stuff like this, and it’s been a great community-building thing. We even have a musicians’ racquetball club together now.”
Exhilarating album opener “Jax” finds The Hornheads in peak form, complementing Wong’s smooth-as-butter groove with punchy fills and breaks, while the soaring “’91 Maxima” pairs them with folk elder statesman Joe Savage, who gets trippy with his jaw harp and pedal steel. Though much of the album is instrumental, guest singers are peppered throughout the collection, bringing additional emotional depth to Wong’s acrobatic compositions. The elastic “Light As Anything” features soulful vocals from Ripe frontman Robbie Wulfsohn, while Vulfpeck singer Antwaun Stanley lends his considerable pipes to the aptly named “Jumbotron Hype Song,” and KATIS adds a charming breeziness to the bouncing “Juke On Jelly.”
As he did with his debut, Wong filmed each of the sessions and captured his remote collaborators recording in front of green screens so that he could dub them in to a series of accompanying music videos. Deliberately campy, the videos play out like old public access television shows captured on VHS tape, the kind of intentionally dated programming that would fit right in with the current lineup of Adult Swim. In addition to being wildly entertaining, the videos allow for Wong to make his concerts true multimedia events, with the green screen footage of his guest vocalists and collaborators projected onscreen to accompany the live band.
Hailed as a “multifaceted” artist by NPR and “the most famous Minnesota musician you’ve probably never heard of” by The Current, Wong’s most recognized for his guitar work with Midwestern funk heroes Vulfpeck but this August, Wong continues cultivating his own brand of modern funk with The Optimist.
This fall, catch Cory Wong on an extensive tour across the U.S. and Europe. Find a full list of dates below.
6/27 - Durango, CO - The Animas City Theatre
7/7 - Chicago, IL - Live in Lincoln Park
8/15 - Charlottesville, VA - The Southern
8/16 - Virginia Beach, VA - Shaka's Live
8/17 - Pittsboro, NC - The BIG What?
8/18 - Asheville, NC - Taproom at Sierra Nevada
8/19 - Knoxville, TN - The Concourse (at The International)
8/21 - Atlanta, GA - Aisle 5
8/24 - Indianapolis, IN - HI-FI Indy
8/25 - Fort Wayne, IN - Two EE's Winery
10/7 - Madrid, Spain - Sala Clamores
10/10 - Cologne, Germany - Club Bahnhof Ehrenfeld
10/11 - Berlin, Germany - Gretchen
10/13 - Den Haag, Netherlands - Mondriaan Jazz Festival
10/14 - Stockholm, Sweden - Stockholm Jazz Festival
10/16 - Amsterdam, Netherlands - Bitterzoet
10/17 - Rotterdam, Netherlands - BIRD
10/19 - Zurich, Switzerland - Moods
10/20 - Fribourg, Switzerland - La Spirale
10/21 - Milan, Italy - Blue Note
10/25 - Live Oak, FL - Suwannee Hulaween
11/17 - Denver, CO - Ogden Theatre