The 2nd August 2019, the day when Cory Wong hit us with his 3rd full-length album ‘Motivational Music for the Syncopated Soul’, the highly anticipated follow-up to its predecessor ‘The Optimist’. Consisting of 10 tracks with an eclectic bunch of featured artists, this album is some of his finest work, putting it lightly.
However, some of you may be wondering exactly, who is Cory Wong? Well, he hails from Minneapolis, Minnesota and has a well-respected place in the funk community, but back in 2018 he managed to make a name for himself in the smooth jazz scene by receiving ‘The Koz Nod’ (see the Dave Koz remix of ‘The Optimist’ and ‘Friends at Sea’). But some of you may have heard of him from the legendary jam-band Vulfpeck, well known for their tight rhythm section and masterful arrangements. His iconic guitar-style is heard on various Vulfpeck tunes (he even gets a song named after him, see here), but he really shines on his self-penned work.
When I first saw the tracklist, it’s safe to say I was hyped from the featured artists alone. Some of his new features include singer/songwriter Caleb Hawley, guitarist and producer Tom Misch, Late Show bandleader Jon Batiste, fusion guitarist Charlie Hunter, singer Emily C. Browning and a bunch of others. Among these artists are some who’ve appeared on some of Wong’s previous work, such as Nate Smith seen alongside Cory in The Fearless Flyers, Cody Fry who appears on both Wong’s debut and sophomore albums, and none other than the late Prince's former bassist Sonny T, as well as some of his common backing bandmates Petar Janjic, Kevin Gastonguay, and Steve Goold.
There’s going to be the odd music-nerd comment here and there, I’ll try and justify them in layman’s terms, but if you don’t understand any of it, don’t worry because you'll have probably stopped reading by now if you weren't a muso.
Limited World ft. Caleb Hawley
Limited World proves to be an excellent opener for the album, which was released a month prior to the album’s release as a single and definitely got me pumped with Caleb Hawley’s rapid vocal lines during the chorus which is testament to his singing ability. The track also features a super cool horn section which locks in with Cory’s playing perfectly keeping the vibe upbeat and the transitions smooth, especially with a horn-driven interlude to give a refreshing break from the verse-chorus format.
Starting with a tight beat on the kit, it leads into a sweet riff ascending chromatically with one of Wong’s most used chords, the dominant 9th chord (seen in many forms of jazz and blues, funk has many roots from these genres in terms of harmony and groove), which can be heard in many of his tracks on this album and others. This riff then keeps the backbone through the verses which is led by a sax-wurli combo melody which is straight up sassy. Moving onto a piano driven middle section, which gave me straight up Stevie Wonder vibes and I'm not complaining.
Lunchtime ft. Sonny T.
Did I mention Prince's former bassist Sonny T earlier? Well this track is certainly a showcase for this groovemaster. Laying down two 'verses' of sheer awesome bass solos. I know a bass solo is a controversial subject, but it's definitely worth it because he absolutely tears it up. Plus, as soon as I heard the opening riff, I was straight to learning it. If I had to pick one riff to describe Cory Wong (which also happens to feature that dominant 9th chord I mentioned earlier), this would be it. I mean horn stabs, they're like the best thing, like ever.
Cosmic Sans ft. Tom Misch
The second I saw Tom Misch was featuring on Cory Wong's new album, I was absolutely pumped as he's one of the smoothest cats out there. This tune is a perfect mix of both Wong's and Misch's styles of music, a significant step-up from the painfully dull text font. Bringing in Misch's smooth disco-esque touch-wah flavoured lines blends brilliantly with Wong's powerful rhythmic backbone.
Home ft. Jon Batiste
Remember Cory Wong getting 'The Koz Nod'? Well those smooth jazz vibes come through on this tune and I'm not the most keen jazz musician in the world, but Jon Batiste cuts through those chord changes like a hot knife through butter and as a smooth jazz tune goes, this is definitely smoooooth. I'm always appreciative of the sheer talent of jazz musicians and this track just solidifies that appreciation.
Today I'm Gonna Get Myself a Real Job
If you've ever had the pleasure of seeing Cory Wong live, you'll know he's nothing short of a comedian as well as a musician, and I knew this track was going to bring out his amusing side. He decides to swap the guitar to tickle those ivories and pick up a mic in a ballad-esque piece describing the struggles of an independent musician in a niche market, but in the end music prevails. Even though some melodies arise as a little cliche, he uses them in a refreshing way that you might have a little chuckle.
Starting Line ft. Emily C. Browning
Hearing a short preview of this track released on the album announcement, I knew I was going to love it. Now listening to it makes me reminisce of 'Juke on Jelly ft. KATIS, Marti Fischer' from 'The Optimist' as they both share a sweet female vocal lead and has that really pop-funk vibe with an uplifting melody that just makes you wanna have a little groove. I totally love the breakdown with the floating harmonies and neat build up to the final chorus, very cool indeed.
Who would've thought a track could have a 2 an a half minute motivational speech in the middle of a track and still be awesome? Cory Wong shows us how. This moving speech is the motivation you need to "unlock your potential" and go for your dreams no matter who stands in your way. Honestly, almost motivated me to go to the gym this morning*. Even so, the speech is backed by a sick guitar solo, even though Cory is known for his rhythm playing, when he plays a solo, he PLAYS a solo. Just saying.
I first had the pleasure of hearing this live, and I've got to say, in the chorus, it's like the happiest sounding melody ever. This 4 piece instrumental track shows you don't need a huge foray of musicians to have a wide ranging sound. This track also features one of Cory Wong's signature techniques of playing various melodies as a run of double stops (two notes played at once) almost sounding like he's harmonising with himself which contributes to the wider sound, in my opinion of course.
Gumshü ft. Charlie Hunter
Bringing the album to a close is a mellow blues-style track with the super unique Charlie Hunter with his custom 7/8 string guitars giving this track a whole new vibe, each verse sees Wong and Hunter swapping out on lead with a nice swung vibe and Wong seems to let out a new side of playing and I hear some very John Mayer-style licks being thrown in there, which is always a bonus for me*. Hunter uses his individual style to bring the album to its end.
Finishing up, this album provides an awesome variety of songs and I'm sure there's something there for everyone. Cory Wong is easily one of the tightest rhythm guitar players out there and I've never heard anyone come close to replicating his playing, tone (the good ol' stratocaster in 4th position is a good start) and straight up vibe. It's totally motivational and I'm giving it a full 5 stars ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Already got my ticket to see him on his UK tour next February, see you there? Till then enjoy his catalogue of previous studio and live albums here. You can also find more info about his tour on his website.
"You're never gonna be as good at being Pat Metheny as Pat Metheny is at being Pat Metheny, you're only gonna be the best at being you" - Companion Pass, Cory Wong.