Groovin’ All Day Wong: A Review of The Cory Wong Band’s The Optimist

by Caleb Calhoun

If you don’t know who Cory Wong is, odds are you actually probably do. I say that because I know my readers are hip to the Vulfpeck, and his jazzy, funky, progressive guitar laces seven of the tracks on the The Beautiful Game, including one named after him.

Still, you may not know about all of the other cool shit he is doing, most notably his project The Cory Wong Band. If that is the case for you, you have figured it out at just the right time, as his newest album, The Optimist, is due out August 17th, and represents some of his best work to date. Not that it’s a competition.

“When I was in music college it was always like, this might be the only record I ever make,” Wong had discussed with me. “Now I want to make the best record I can to place a time-stamp on where I am as an artist today knowing that there will be others to come, like my work with Vulfpeck and Fearless Flyers.”

The idea for the album, while conceived a little hastily, had it’s roots in his every-ready approach to writing music. Wong explains:

“I constantly am recording little demos and such on my phone and I keep a folder of that. So yes it was last minute but I had a lot of jumping points to start from. Basically i ended up with like four days to put it together.”

This approach to creation, while terrifying to some, works perfectly for Wong. Even during the recording process itself his goal was to rely on instinct and inspiration versus repetition.

“I’m a deadline guy, I need um. I work better under pressure and a lot of these sessions it was just a couple friends of mine like ‘Hey I’m gonna be in town next week. Last time we hung we said lets play so we gonna be around if you wanna play…’ Wong chuckles. “It forced me to rely more on my instincts as a musician and a writer than really sitting down mulling over every note which, in the end sometimes doesn’t turn out any better,   This was much more spur of the moment, using my instincts as a writer and producer and getting the instincts of the guys that were playing. I did it kind of Nashville style, you know, show up, hear the demo, make their notes and boom, do it.”

As for class on the record, you would never know that this was the case, but a second listen reveals a certain gravitas and inter-connectedness of musicians that is clearly not over-produced.

Still, it has been a long journey for Wong from his early days with the Corey Wong Quartet to getting to where he is now.

“If you listen to those records it sounds like a young artist really trying to figure out his voice,” he reminisces. “I just didn’t know. It’s never been industry driven, which I think you can tell listening to those records, and even now.”

While Wong’s newer work with Vulf and FF and CWB continues the pattern of playing the music he wants to play, record sales be damned, it’s also not difficult to see why he is rising to such prominence on the national scene, or to imagine that this EP is just another step in the evolution of America’s consciousness surrounding his work.

Tight and groovy from the very first moments The Optimist is everything that is good about Cory Wong’s guitar playing, mixed with some brand new cohorts, which allows the record to open up a little more than his previous offerings.

He has also videoed all of the recordings of the songs live, to give us a look into the process going on behind the scenes. While the full videos won’t be released until the album is, you can check a sneak peak on his instagram here:

Featuring many of the musicians that Wong has found in the same orbit as himself, but not yet recorded with it has the feel of a culmination, of a first date with a woman you have been trying to get with for years, especially on the tracks Light as Anything and Juke On Jelly. Both tracks represent a diversion from the rest of the album, adding a certain amount of pop feel to the record.

Still, it’s the hectic funk grooves of Cory Wong that we are really listening to this album for, and there is plenty of that to satiate even the most hyperactive fan. The album starts out strong with Jax, perhaps my favorite song, and Wong’s guitar with Prince‘s horn section backing carries the record through ’91 Maxima (done in one take), Jumbotron Hype Song ft. Antwaun Stanley, finishing it off strong with the Optimist and Massive Action.

All in all it is a romp of a record, worthy of putting on repeat on Spotify and listening to over and over until you know every groove and every word

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