Kerong Chok - hammond C3 rgan
Lucas Pino - tenor and soprano saxophones, flute
Michael Valeanu - guitars
Jake Goldbas - drums and percussion
Matt Holman - trumpet (tracks 3 and 8)
When people think of Singapore - the small island, city-state in Southeast Asia - images of a well-ordered, literate, socially disciplined, technologically advanced, multicultural entrepot easily come to mind. Musically, the country is known for its brilliant classically trained prodigies. Now there's another great musical talent coming from that part of the world - jazz organist, composer, and bandleader Kerong Chok. He's a graduate of the distinguished Manhattan School of Music and has played with a number of jazz stars including Frank Wess, Steve Wilson, and John Riley.
On Good Company, his debut recording as a leader, this innovative organist delivers ten original compositions in an engaging, impassioned quintet featuring Brubeck Institute graduate, tenor/soprano saxophonist/flutist Lucas Pino, the Parisian, New School alumnus guitarist Michael Valeanu, and fellow MSM alumni, trumpeter Matt Holman, and drummer/percussionist Jake Goldbas. The leader and his simpatico sidemen are informed by classic artists in the sixties Blue Note Records mode, particularly Larry Young's 1966 masterpiece, Unity.
"Young is huge," Chok says. "I listened to that record so much. There's a certain intensity in the music he plays that is so natural, and so appropriate... Like Coltrane, he reflects the emotional connection he has to the music. I first heard him when I was getting interested in the organ. I heard about Jimmy Smith first, and then I heard about Larry Young and a recording that had Joe Henderson and Elvin Jones on it. I went to HMV every week and asked for Unity, and it would never be there, but one day I found a Japanese import and took it home, and it was one the most amazing things I ever heard."
Chok's fleet-fingered, adventuresome styling distills the best of Young's pioneering organ sound into equally provocative and propelling music, tailor made for the twenty-first century.
"I was writing music on a regular basis, taking note of pieces that would potentially work as part of an album or live set," Chok says, "and also waiting for the right band to come along. I wanted to make this more about the ensemble and the compositions. It was about everybody working as a team, presenting the compositions like songs as opposed to a 'blowing' session."
On this album, Chok's nod to Young is aurally evident on the sizzling opener "Black Ice," inspired by the hidden patches of ice one walks and drives over in winter, which the leader metaphorically makes manifest. "The bass line moves around in a way that changes the meaning of the two chords in the guitar vamp," Chok explains, "it's like the ground shifting under you." "Literacy" bounces with a Caribbean feel, inspired by Chok's time in school where he "was learning a new language, and learning how to expand musically." The foreboding "Sounds from the Back Alley" and "Incessant," - originally named "Washy Cymbals" as a reference to Tony Williams - both take their compositional cue from the influential Miles Davis/Wayne Shorter sixties groups.
"The First Day of School" is a briskly paced 4/4 composition Chok wrote shortly after he matriculated at the Manhattan School of Music, contrasted by "For Kenny," Chok's beautiful elegy to the late prolific pianist Kenny Kirkland. "Kenny Kirkland was a great inspiration to me," Chok says. "I felt that it represented the way Kenny wrote tunes. And the mood of the tune, the way it progresses - it goes somewhere but it dies down at the end, and to me it's similar to how Kenny really could have done so much more if he hadn't passed on so early." "Rill Son" is a frenetic, neo-bop burner whose title is an anagram of the great saxophone colossus Sonny Rollins' name, whereas the lilting "Samba Number 1," which was covered by vocalist Rani Singam as "You'll Never Have to Dance Alone" on her album Contentment, swings softly in the Brazilian manner.
"Free and Easy" may easily be the band's hit single. "I did a lot of R&B gigs in Singapore," Chok fondly recalls. "So, as a result, I'm really influenced by D'Angelo and Maxwell, and I couldn't resist putting a tune like that on the album. I'm also inspired by Michael Brecker, he wrote tunes that were so accessible, but had all these challenging harmonies underneath." The album's title track is a brushed-stroked waltz. "The piece was inspired by people you're comfortable with," Chok says. "The tune never really resolves, which is kind of what you want when you're around the right people, and that also applies to the band."
Coming from a country that stresses the values of cooperation, it's easy to see how Chok's band swings with such unity, and how Chok intelligently interprets Larry Young's style, the jazz organ tradition, and the jazz aesthetic from half a world away. Born in 1983 to parents of Chinese descent, Chok began classical piano lessons at the age of four; but it wasn't until his teenage years, when an enterprising music teacher, Eugene Dairianathan, sought ways to peak and maintain his student's musical curiosity.
"He was with me during my high school years," Chok says. "He was always looking for ways to open me up, and the turning point for me was when he brought in the score of Chick Corea's 'Spain.' He said, 'try playing this,' and I struggled through it, but the sounds I was getting out of the piano, I never heard myself play before. So that was the start of my love affair with jazz. I went out and bought a Return to Forever two-CD set which had a live version of 'Spain' that went on fifteen minutes. I had no idea of what was going on, but I kept on listening to it. And before I knew it, I was into Miles Smiles, Sorcerer... things like that. I was conscious of the organ tradition when I was about sixteen or seventeen, and I started playing organ a few years later. Also, another prominent Singaporean musician who has given immense support to younger guys like me: Jeremy Monteiro. When I got into this music as a teenager, his live concerts were a very important source of information."
Chok gigged around Singapore in a variety of local bands, including a ten-piece jazz ensemble and his first organ trio. He also worked as a studio sideman and played with visiting jazz stars such as saxophonist Eli Degibri and guitarist Eugene Pao. Originally looking to pursue a law degree, Chok graduated from the National University of Singapore in 2008. And, that same year, thanks to a generous scholarship from the Singapore National Arts Council, moved to New York, enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music, and graduated with a Master's Degree in 2010. Chok has performed in a number of varied venues including Smoke, The Blue Note, and at The Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.
Which brings us to Good Company, Chok's first recording as a leader. The album serves notice that the jazz organ tradition is alive in the twenty-first century, in the hands of an intelligent and probing artist who is writing the first musical chapter of what will surely be a career to watch.