121: Cory Wong
Guitarist Cory Wong wants you to know that “smooth-jazz” is not a dirty word. At least not as he sees it. That’s why he started referring to himself as the “millennial smooth jazz ambassador”.
Cory comes from Minneapolis and got his start working with many of the great Minneapolis funk musicians who worked with Prince; they showed him the ways of the funk. It’s a deep and very special legacy. Cory is an infectious performer, with incredible energy and positivity on stage.
One night a half dozen years ago, some young musicians from Michigan were on tour in Minneapolis and had a night off. Somebody told them to go check out a band called Doctor Mambo’s Combo (Cory happened to be subbing for the regular guitar player that night).
Something special happened that night. Maybe it was a full moon. Maybe it was destiny. Maybe it was beshert. By the time the concert was over, Cory had connected with a group of people who would have a big impact on his life and career: Jack Stratton, Theo Katzman, Joe Dart & Joey Dosik of Vulfpeck.
Today Cory is best known for his work with the band Vulfpeck. Their YouTube videos have made them into funk-celebrities, and now they sell out all over the world. It’s a completely independent, gorilla style operation, which is why it’s so extraordinary that in just a few short years Vulfpeck has built up enough of a following to be able to play for larger and larger audiences. (Later this year, for example, they’ll play Madison Square Garden in New York.)
In our conversation we tell the story of what happened when Cory met Vulf, how the first encounter went, and subsequently how Cory’s life and career were impacted. Cory explains how his concept of “letting rhythm be take the lead” developed after he connected with Jack Stratton.
We also get severely sidetracked talking about saxophonist Dave Koz, legendary Minneapolis drummer Michael Bland and bassist Sonny Thompson, Los Angeles phenomenon Louis Cole, mandolin master Chris Thile, and playing with the Fearless Flyers.
Cory’s own solo project has grown recently as well. He has released a series of records and videos, and tours regularly with his band of Minneapolis groove assassins. In late January he played a sold out show at the Bowery Ballroom in New York.
The next night, we had this conversation, in which he talks about coming up in Minneapolis, playing with Vulfpeck, disrupting smooth jazz, commanding the grid, letting “rhythm take the lead”, the YouTube effect, the power of a good story, and Thai massage.