While we slackers were attending Zoom meetings and navigating Netflix, Minnesota guitar star Cory Wong was busy releasing 11 albums in 2020.
Eleven albums! Hello, Guinness, is that a world record?
It certainly sounds unprecedented, though Guinness doesn’t have such a category. But the guitarist explains his hyper-prolificness calmly and logically.
“I was able to pull it off because I was in the studio almost every day in 2020, and that’s so many more days than I normally would,” said Wong, who plays in the bands Vulfpeck and the Fearless Flyers as well as under his own name. “I’m normally on the road at least 100 days a year.”
While his wife coordinated their three children and various online classes at home, Wong headed to his home recording studio. And pressed “record.” That’s the way it works when you specialize in instrumental music, with an occasional guest vocalist.
Last week, Wong dropped his 12th album in 13 months, “Cory and the Wongnotes” — the one he actually had envisioned pre-pandemic as his big release of 2020.
Like many things with Wong, this endeavor has multiple layers. Beyond the 11-track album, featuring the funkiest Minnesota instrumental jams this side of Prince, there’s an accompanying eight-episode web series.
“This is a project I’ve had in mind for years — to basically do my own variety show,” he said. “I’ve been a big fan of late-night TV since I was a kid. I was always interested in the Muppets, ‘Live at the Apollo,’ random variety shows. I wanted to combine all those things. It’s like ‘The Late Show’ meets ‘SNL’ for musicians.”
In August, Wong created a “bubble” for his 11 musicians at two rental houses and SoundCheck Nashville, a complex where country stars rehearse for tours.
“I had a vision for set design and hired a set builder,” he explained. “We did it all in four days — eight episodes and the album, all at the same time.”
The webcast showcases Wong’s silly sense of humor as much as his devotion to funk music.
“I love good-slash-bad sitcoms. They can get away with the dumbest stuff but still somehow be funny,” he said. “And humor was a currency amongst my friend group growing up, whether it be some sort of witty comment or some sort of physical humor. Mine was a little more slapstick. I like clean comedy.”
And absurdity. In concert, Wong has touted a “Smooth Jazz Starter Kit,” featuring a cassette of mellow instrumental music, a fluorite crystal and other ephemera that he actually sells at his merchandise table.
Said the entertainer: “It’s how I get to show who I am as a person without singing about it.”
Beyond the humor, Wong has a clear sense of branding. He invariably wears shirts with horizontal stripes.
“I wore a striped shirt at my first public performance of music, a piano recital in third grade,” he reminisced. “I’ve been a stripes kid from the start.”
Fittingly, his last release of 2020 was titled “The Striped Album.”
WORK AND SMART MARKETING
At 35, Wong is a savvy, resourceful blend of old-school work ethic and modern-day marketing. He checks all the right boxes.
Podcast: Check. He’s interviewed guitar heroes like Vince Gill and Joe Satriani.
Social media: Check. He has 237,000 Instagram followers and 86,000 YouTube subscribers.
TV appearances: Check. He’s a first-call substitute guitarist on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.” On Jan. 29, Wong played with his own band on “The Late Show.”
Collaborations: Check. He’s enlisted veterans like smooth-jazz saxophonist Dave Koz and world-class mandolinist Chris Thile as well as newer names like fiddler Sierra Hull.
Endorsement: Check. He’s the face of the Stratocaster guitar for Fender.
For years, veteran Twin Cities drummer Michael Bland watched Wong make strides on the local scene.
“Who knew Cory was going to build his own cottage industry-slash-empire?” said Bland. “If you learn how to harness the power of social media, you can accomplish anything.”
Several years ago, Wong and his drummer pal Petar Janjic went to Bunkers bar in Minneapolis’ North Loop every week to study Dr. Mambo’s Combo, an all-star R&B band that featured Bland and bassist/guitarist Sonny Thompson (who now plays in Wong’s band with Janjic). In tribute, Wong dubbed a song on his new album “Headin’ Down to Bunkers.”
“I kind of cut my teeth at Bunkers,” said Wong, who spent two-and-a-half years studying science at the University of Minnesota before switching to McNally Smith College of Music. “I was trying to write a tune that would fit into the funk standards category, where it’s got a fairly simple form but a lot of the magic is in how you play it and who’s playing it.”
CHUTZPAH AND SLEEP
With an output that sounds more prolific than Prince in his heyday, does Wong ever sleep?
“I prioritize eight hours of sleep a night,” he said. “It drives my tour manager nuts when we’re on the road. I try to work out every day, too. Then when it comes time to work, I have the focus and I have the energy and mental capacity and — boom! — I can get done what I need to get done.”
When inspiration strikes, he makes voice memos to himself on his smartphone. Even if he’s noodling on one of his 35 guitars while he watches TV with his family.
In short, Wong doesn’t turn off the creativity — and productivity.
“Cory is doing exactly what Prince wished he could have been doing,” said Bland, who played in Prince’s New Power Generation from 1989 to 1996. In other words, release albums as often as you want rather than waiting for a record label to control your timetable.
The fearless Wong has a sense of chutzpah that’s more charming than off-putting. When he wanted to land a gig on Koz’s smooth-jazz cruise, he posted a YouTube video of himself interpreting a Koz tune and tweeted about it. Koz saw it, signed Wong for ship duty and eventually came to Minneapolis, where Wong produced a Koz album (in 2020, no less). There is no release date yet.
“Dave comes from the old school. He likes a lot of lead-up time and he’s doing things by the book, which is totally cool,” Wong said. “It’s a different timeline and process than I’m used to.”
In the School of Wong, there are no rules. Stuck at home in a pandemic, he made companion acoustic albums — “Trail Songs: Dawn” and “Trail Songs: Dusk” — that he self-released simultaneously last summer.
“No one expected it,” said the funky electric guitarist, “but it reflects the state I’m in artistically and creatively right now.”
One album that Wong wasn’t even planning to make is garnering him the most attention.
“Meditations,” a collaboration with Colbert bandleader/pianist Jon Batiste, is nominated for a Grammy for best New Age album.
“The one album that took the least amount of work — we recorded it in 35 minutes, and I mixed the album (later) in one day — that’s the one that got the Grammy nomination,” said Wong, who was in New York City in 2019 to sit in with the Colbert band and headline Madison Square Garden with Vulfpeck. “That album would not have happened in a regular year because Jon would have been on tour and I would have been on tour.”
For those keeping score, in 2020 Wong released seven albums under his own name (including “Meditations” and two live recordings) and one each with Vulfpeck and the Fearless Flyers. Plus he appeared on records by two European ensembles, Metropole Orkest and Lexsoul Dancemachine. (Four of the albums were recorded before 2020.)
In 2021, “Cory and the Wongnotes” is the only album he has planned. So far. After all, the year is just getting started.
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