Composer, bandleader, violin
Since 1994, Seattle/New York-based composer and violinist Eyvind Kang has become one of the hottest new faces in jazz. Along with straight-ahead and improvisational jazz, Kang has also worked in genres as diverse as experimental rock, the avant-garde, folk, Renaissance dance music, World music, and modern classical. “He’s got this absolutely wide-open curiosity,” guitarist Bill Frisell told Paul de Barros of Down Beat in October of 1999. “Even though he’s young, he has this sort of wisdom about him, this kind of inner calm.” By the end of 1999, Kang had composed music for and released three albums as a bandleader, including his acclaimed NADEs series: 7 Nades and Theater of Mineral NADEs, in addition to The Sweetness of Sickness. Just five years into his career, Kang had already collaborated with several musicians from an eclectic array of concentrations, from jazz greats like Wayne Horvitz to alternative rock Beck. “I play with countless groups,” said Kang, who refused to adhere to the music industry’s fixation on more permanent collaborations. “I’m interested in creating my own life outside the capitalistic grid of the music industry. Music can exist—does exist, will exist—without that. Like, I saw in the Himalayans they found a 10,000-year-old frozen body. The guy had a flute and a bag of pot.”
Born around 1972 in Seattle, Washington, to parents of Asian and Icelandic descent, Kang spent his formative years in a region known for its creative spirit. Although during the late 1980s and into the following decade, Seattle was more widely recognized for its coffee brewers, software developers, and grunge rock bands, the Northwest city was at the same time quietly developing and delivering several of America’s first-rate jazz players. Like other musicians from the Seattle area who emerged on the jazz scene in the 1990s such as trumpeter Dave Douglas, drummer Mike Sarin (who worked in the Dave Douglas String Group and Myra Melfords’s The Same River, Twice), guitarist Brad Shepik, reedman Chris Speed, and drummer Jim Black, Kang had the good fortune of growing up in a city with a healthy jazz infrastructure: strong school music programs, inspiring teachers and role models, and opportunities to hear great players at a multitude of venues. “It maybe even goes as far back as the music programs in elementary school,” offered Shepik, who grew up in the suburbs east of Seattle, where he met Speed and Black, as quoted by de Barros in the August 1999 issue of Down Beat. “Everybody in that area had the opportunity to play in bands in school.”
Taking advantage of such opportunities, Kang learned to play violin beginning at the age of six, and along the way picked up a slew of other instruments, including guitar, bass, keyboards, mandolin, tuba, recorders, and drums. In 1991, Kang enrolled at the Cornish College for the Arts, a school with a curriculum embracing free-improvisation and open form, as well as other jazz traditions. Here, Kang met his definitive influence, faculty member and violinist Michael White of the legendary John Handy Quintet. Other prominent faculty members at Cornish College have included drummer Jerry Granelli, trombonist Julian Priester, tenor saxophonist and flutist Hadley Caliman, female vocalist Jay Clayton, and double bassist Gary Peacock. While studying with White, Kang met keyboardist Wayne Horvitz, who, in turn, introduced the young musician to John Zorn. Following in the path of other promising young jazz musicians, Kang by this time had settled on a part-time basis in New York City, splitting his time between the East Coast and his hometown. In spite of Seattle’s opportunities, most top players discover that only the downtown New York jazz scene offers steady work and a large, stimulating pool of like-minded players. “COBRA (Zorn’s group-improv game piece) was being done every week at the old Knitting Factory,” Kang recalled to de Barros in Down Beat’s October 1999 issue. “I went there to hear it, and [Zorn] invited me to play. Then he invited me on the tour.”
Since 1992, COBRA, Zorn’s best-known musical game show, had been played at least once a month at the legendary Knitting Factory jazz club. The musicians, usually numbering 12, are separated into various teams and prompted with flash cards and hand signals. COBRA, named after a military game, “is like a cross
Born c. 1972 in Seattle, WA; son of parents of Icelandic and Asian descent. Education: Attended Cornish College for the Arts; studied with violinist Michael White and classical Indian violinist Dr. N. Rajam in Bombay, India.
Joined John Zorn’s COBRA group, 1994; joined guitarist Bill Frisell’s quartet, 1995; released debut album 7 Nades as a bandleader on Zorn’s Tzadik label, 1996; released Theater of Mineral NADEs, 1998; toured with Frisell’s band the Willies, 1999; toured Japan with alternative musician Beck, 2000.
Awards: Artist Support Program grant from the Jack Straw Foundation, 1994.
between an exhibition sports match and a board game,” wrote Down Beat’s John Corbett in June of 1994. “Its rules guide musicians into and out of musical roles and relationships, wherein they must use their improvising skills to negotiate.” More often than not, therefore, the success of each show weighs heavily on the musicians who play in the game, rather than with the structures and regulations created by Zorn. When Kang joined COBRA that night at the Knitting Factory in the spring of 1994, Zorn had decided to take his exhibition on the road. The opportunity seemed perfect for Kang, who wanted to take a new, less restrained direction in his career. According to critics, Kang displayed superb improvisational skills and an ability to interact with his comrades, despite his young age. At one COBRA performance in Chicago at the Vic Theater, “Kang was a vertiginous delight, working wonderfully with [cellist] Erik Friedlander and putting forward a lovely Middle Eastern mode, at one point,” declared Corbett.
Also in 1994, Kang received an Artist Support Program grant from the Jack Straw Foundation and used the funds to record the first seven of his series of musical compositions entitled 7 Nades (released in 1996 on Zorn’s label, Tzadik). The astonishing, eccentric album, named after a play on the word “serenades,” earned critical accolades and appeared on several “Best 10” lists in 1996. Zorn hailed the work as “One of the quirkiest and most indescribable of sound sculptures from a new generation of experimentalists. A composition that will bring new revelations with each listening,” as quoted on the Tzadik website. By this point in his young career, Kang had already performed with and/or recorded with the likes of Zorn, the Sun City Girls, Wayne Horvitz and Motel 6 (and later his 4 + 1 ensemble), Joe McPhee, Deformation, and others.
Meanwhile, Kang in 1995 was approached by guitarist Bill Frisell (who, incidentally, moved from New York City to Seattle in the mid-1980s) to play on the soundtrack for a television special on Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoon series. Later that year, Kang joined FriselPs new quartet. “I’m so excited about this guy,” an enthused Frisell told Fred Bouchard of Down Beat in April of 1995. “He’s classically trained in Suzuki method and can play bebop, Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale or hip-hop.” Not only did Kang play violin on FriselPs acclaimed Americana, Quartet (released in 1996 on Elektra/Nonesuch), he also revealed his proficiency on the tuba. The enterprising album, in terms of instrumentation, also featured a number of the compositions written for the Larson Far Side special. In addition to playing with Frisell and releasing his debut as a bandleader and composer in 1996, Kang also played violin on Doghead’s self-titled release and Karen Pernick’s album entitled Apartment 12. The following year saw Kang lending his skills as a violinist to We’s As Is and Gabriela’s Detra’s del Sol; he also served as arranger and multi-instrumentalist for the album Great Jewish Music: Serge Gainsbour.
In 1998, Kang continued to compose, record, and further his interests in World music, spending four months that year in Bombay, India, studying classical Indian violin with Dr. N. Rajam. That year also saw the release of another installment of the NADEs series, the epic Theater of Mineral NADEs, which was destined to become one of the year’s most talked about jazz albums, as well as a multi-genre effort entitled The Sweetness of Sickness, released on the Rabid God Inoculator label. Another project showcasing Kang’s diversity, the album featured free-jazz, experimental noise, folk, World music, Renaissance dance music, and modern classical sounds that hit the listener at sometimes dizzying speeds. He also formed a group called Dying Ground, a dark, apocalyptic trio that also included drummer G. Calvin Weston and bassist Kato Hideki; the trio released their self-titled debut album in 1998. Kang’s other appearances in 1998 included playing violin for Andrew Drury’s Polish Theater Posters and Horvitz’s 4 + 1 Ensemble.
The following year, an album with clarinetist François Houle and drummer Dylan VanDerSchyff entitled Pieces of Time was released on Canada’s Spool label, and Kang guested on both violin and viola for Mister Bungle’s California and Arto Lindsay’s Prize. Also in 1999, Kang performed gigs in Seattle and later across Europe with Frisell’s new group called the Willies, a bluegrass-inspired quartet that included banjo player Danny Barnes. Later that year, in addition to working on a new project for Tzadik, Kang recorded on a new album by Motorbison, a Seattle grunge/jazz band, scheduled for release in early 2000. In the spring of 2000, Kang took his talents to the alternative rock scene, joining renowned musician Beck on a three-week tour of Japan.
(With the Bill Frisell Quartet) Americana Quartet, Elektra/Nonesuch, 1996.
7 Nades, Tzadik, 1996.
(With Dying Ground) Dying Ground, 1998.
The Sweetness of Sickness, Rabid God Inoculator, 1998.
Theater of Mineral NADEs, Tzadik, 1998.
(With Houle and VanDerSchyff) Pieces of Time, 1999.
Cook, Richard and Brian Morton, Penguin Guide to Jazz on Compact Disc, Penguin Books, 1998.
Billboard, April 13, 1996.
Boston Globe, February 6, 1998.
Down Beat, June 1994; April 1995; April 1996; August 1996; October 1997; August 1999; October 1999, p. 54.
Village Voice, January 26, 1999.
All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (February 9, 2000).
Tzadik Records, http://www.tzadik.com (February 9, 2000).
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