“Invent yourself and then reinvent yourself. Change your tone and shape so often that they can never categorize you.”
Charles Bukowski’s poem, No Leaders, Please, is the driving ethos behind saxophonist Jason Gay. Never still, Gay relentlessly explores the depths and exhausts every possibility of each musical rabbit hole he dives down.
Born in Washington D.C. and landing in Hawaii during his service in U.S. Navy band, Gay leapt into the world of Chinese folk songs and its mainstay instruments, including the er-hu, pipa and guzheng. In the mid-2010s, Gay spent four years transcribing, imitating, assimilating, and innovating these sounds. Emerging along his journey was a cast of musicians who eagerly helped Gay interpret compositions like “Jasmine Flower” or “Blooming Flowers and the Full Moon” into an often transcendental state of jazz. The group, known as the Hidden Dragon Quartet, was comprised of Gay, drummer Noel Okimoto, pianist Grant Carvalho, and bassist Ian Sheridan.
Following these live engagements, Gay decided to enter the studio with co-producer Dean Taba. The result: Dynasty, self-released in 2018 on CD and digital, featuring some of Hawaii’s A-list players, including Tommy James on piano, Dean Taba on bass, DeShannon Higa on trumpet, with drummer Noel Okimoto, and featuring er-hu musician Tsun-Hui Hung and taiko master Kenny Endo.
Eloquent and exuberant, the recordings delight in the spirit of these songs, offering an elegant introduction (or refresher, for the informed listened) to these compositions, many originally composed expressly for the er-hu, a stringed instrument likened to the West’s violin. “This isn’t about jazz musicians playing Chinese arrangements, or about positioning the erhu as a new sound in mainstream American music,” wrote music journalist John Berger in 2018 upon the CD’s initial release. “Gay and his musicians are reworking Chinese melodies into their own jazz idiom — and doing quite well at it.”
Gay’s understanding of the music and the arrangement deliver outstanding results. Where his talent truly shines is “Jackdaws Playing in the Water”, an exhilarating solo performance that nods to the er-hu’s integral role as a solo instrument in this musical form. Tying the album to our modern day, Gay also included a wistful cover of Little Dragon’s “Twice”. While admittedly outside of the Chinese diaspora (the band’s lead signer is Japanese-Swedish), “Twice” complements the compositions he selected for Dynasty.
“As Bill Evans put it, "Jazz is not a 'what' but a 'how’,” wrote Gay in 2018. “I put this theory to the test by performing Chinese folk songs using the jazz method, and implementing Chinese musical language in each piece. Each song captures a different aspect of the human spirit.” Much like the timeless style of Chinese landscape paintings, these recordings reveal an intimately observed, living universe of expression.
“This is both a reflection of who I am musically and the elegance and beauty that I've found while deeply studying and transcribing Chinese traditional music,” Gay shares. “Every song captures a different color and is surprisingly relatable during these ever changing times.”
Aloha Got Soul has selected six cuts from the saxophonist’s 12-track CD for a vinyl release with artwork by Brady Evans.
Release date: October 15, 2021.
Available on black vinyl and “mist” vinyl (clear with black swirl).