Jonny Fung | A Thinker in the World of Music

Jonny Fung. Photo property of Sol Fusion BandBy Miranda Stryker

“I’m only getting one record, but definitely no more than three,” says Jonny Fung, beaming at the gospel and R&B vinyl section at Manifest Discs.  Holding up a Jesse Johnson record, he exclaims,  “Oh man, do you know who this is? This is D’Angelo’s guitarist right now. I opened for them in Aruba with Anthony [Hamilton]! It was so sick, I gotta get this!”

Charlotte-raised Fung has evolved from playing local venues and bars with friends as a youngun’ of the local rock scene to becoming a well-rounded, full-time professional musician. Fung is now recording with Grammy-winning producer Cedric Thompson, touring with neo-soul artists Tamia and Anthony Hamilton, and making his own way in the R&B and gospel world.  Lately he has been prepping for an upcoming live recording with gospel artist John P. Kee as well as headlining Charlotte’s uptown New Years Eve celebration, First Night, with the band Sol Fusion.

But Fung has never been your typical “artist,” and his path has been one of passion and dedication, one that’s been full of surprises.

Growing up, Fung was a short, skinny nerd who was socially awkward.  He was a good student and had friends but was an introvert by nature.  Generally, he just felt more comfortable keeping to himself—off stage, that is.  At Providence High School, he played a lot of heavy, progressive rock because that’s what he liked.  To add to his role as the shy, smart dude that shreds heavy metal guitar, “I had longer hair than anyone! It literally touched my waist,” he says, laughing and conceding that this may have magnified his social awkwardness.

For Fung, playing his guitar was a means to “get the demons out,” something he needed as much as he loved.  On stage, his other personality would emerge: the guitarist flinging his hair around, playing his instrument behind his head, making crazy stank faces, and taking his shirt off, among other show antics not exactly characteristic of a typical introvert. He loved the attention and couldn’t get enough.

From a young age, Fung has always had an intense curiosity for figuring out exactly how things worked.  It’s a trait he probably inherited from his engineer father, Raymond Fung. Music was the first thing that fascinated Jonny and gave him the urge to understand every aspect of it, probably subconsciously influence by his mother Jill Fung, a concert cellist.  Aside from his first clarinet at age seven, he took piano lessons for a couple of years until receiving a guitar for Christmas at age 10.

There wasn’t a particular band or music type that made him want to play—like any other 10-year-old boy he thought it would be “neat.”  Not long afterward, though, he was taking composition and improvisation lessons with critically acclaimed Charlotte-based jazz pianist and composer, Claire Ritter.  From then on he was completely hooked.  In high school, he would doodle compositions during class.  Every day after school he would go home, and while other kids were on AIM, riding bikes, or melting their brains with video games, Fung would practice for hours at a time.

Ritter had a major impact on Fung, ranging from his playing to his organization and thinking.  “I’m definitely a neat freak, and probably because of Claire,” he says.  “I just loved the way she had file cabinets with all the sheet music in it organized and labeled.  And all of her pencils were in the same place every time.”

He studied with Ritter for a little over four years, and though he refuses the prodigy label, Ritter says Fung was one of her creative prodigies.  “As a young student, Jonathan had a quiet, introspective disposition,” says Ritter. “He was intrigued with color and sound, multiple instruments, and was a natural performer, and I knew early that he had the aptitude to be a professional musician/composer.”  From his original compositions to the titles he gave them, he was a unique talent with a sharp ear.

Ritter had him learning the compositions of legendary jazz composer Thelonious Monk when he was in fifth grade, an artist she believed to be a sturdy foundation for young musicians to learn about “spice chords” and phrasing.  That influence must have really stuck because Fung and his now-wife, Tara, even named their puppy after him.

Still, like most pragmatic college graduates, Fung didn’t think he could make a living just playing music.  So he spent his first few months out of school as an administrative assistant at a local cemetery.  But he’d apparently discovered the key to taking music from a hobby to a vocation.

“A lot of kids get enraptured with the ‘coolness’ of the scene,” he says with a newfound wisdom referring to the local Charlotte rock scene.  He remembered seeing Scapegoat, an early millennium Charlotte hard rock band, releasing their album These Cards We’re Dealt in 2004 at Tremont Music Hall, and thinking they were the coolest dudes in the whole world.  But with age and experience and an ever-increasing knowledge of music, Fung realized there was so much more to it than just being the coolest dude in the room, and that instead he could be the best. The more he practiced and learned, the more he realized how much more there was to learn and practice.  Fung began keeping practice logs—up to about 1,200 pages at this point—to document his thoughts and what he’s been working on for later reflection and future interests.

The way Fung thinks about music is different from other musicians that talk about the emotions they feel when playing or writing. He speaks about it more methodically and mathematically, and about the pieces and parts of it—the fascination of its construction. Philosopher and educator Cornell West once said, “I am a jazz man in the world of ideas.”  Fung says, “I consider myself a thinker in the world of music.”

The music he was deciding to play became less about what he liked to play and what was cool, and more about what he should be playing to make himself the best musician he could be.  This mentality was instilled in him by his parents with the “no matter what you choose to do, strive to be the best at it” pep talk.  They have always been fully supportive of him, and set good examples with a solid work ethic and passions, never forcing things on him but instead allowing it to come naturally.

Though Fung—his hair now short and quaffed slightly to one side—dedicated so much to learning everything he could about his craft, he still attended UNC-Chapel Hill as a political science major fully intending to get a day job with his degree. But he continued practicing adamantly and playing jazz around Chapel Hill throughout his college years. He came home most weekends to play in local soul rock band Lucky Five with his best friends.  When he graduated in May 2011 and moved back to Charlotte, he continued playing jazz at spots around town, like The Mill in NoDa.  Through demonstrations of his skill and passion during these performances, he made acquaintances with another side of the scene—the R&B and gospel side.

He began exploring that side of the music scene and got a job playing guitar at Forest Hill church in Charlotte.  Soon after making acquaintances with the producer Cedric Thompson, he got asked to record on a couple of new friends’ tracks and eventually found himself playing Maya Angelou’s 85th birthday party in Winston-Salem.  There, he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Common, and later D’Angelo and Pino Palladino, among others.  Before he knew it, he no longer needed his office job to sustain himself—so he quit the cemetery gig.

As his next phase in his musical career journey, this guitarist hopes to become a producer.  He’s also been doing some composing, which Ritter was elated to hear. Knowing how coveted the producer position is, he has already begun messing around regularly with producing tools on his own compositions.

In keeping with his mathematical music thinking, Fung left Manifest with five records because he likes odd numbers. He probably went home to shred over them immediately.

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Life is Good by NAS

Michele Karr

Album Review

Nas’s latest album with Def Jam Records, Life Is Good, presents a fresh break in modern hip-hop and shows reflections of his classic style. The mid-July debuted album hearkens back to the Golden Era of hip-hop, during the 90’s when Adidas sneakers and baggy street-wear were the fashion statements for this genre. Nas’s lyrical delivery is as tight as ever, and with involved metaphors and intricate rhyming schemes flows easily. In the track “Reach Out,” he spits “this is reminiscent to all the parks in the project, when my British Knights can rival your Foamposites. Don’t make me pull my Lottos out the closet.”

The detailed lyrics tell stories and reap meaning unlike the rachet hits popular in mainstream hip-hop today that merely repeat lines with lack of significance. Unlike the typical booty-shaking and materialistic anthems in recent music, Nas reaches back to memories and shows emotions and growth. It differs from his more vengeful and street-hard albums. Fans looking for his spite in albums similar to Stillmatic should seek elsewhere.

This album satisfies the listener from start to finish through a dynamic list of featured artists such as Mary J. Blige, Rick Ross, and Charlotte native Anthony Hamilton, and includes a stunning posthumous track with Amy Winehouse. Titled “Cherry Wine,” it adds a new experience to Nas’s collaborations and pays tribute to the late artist, with whom he shares a birthday. It hints to a trend in hip-hop of mixing with other genres giving Life is Good a larger appeal. The diversity of sounds on the record range from late 80’s, early 90′s rap with simple but exciting boom-bap beats on tracks such as “Nasty” and “The Don,” to tracks “No Introduction,” “A Queens Story” and “Stay” that offer jazz and orchestral elements in modern beats. Flirtation with jazz and hip-hop music was also popular during the early 90’s with bands such as A Tribe Called Quest. The sonic variation during the album makes for easy listening and a song for any state of mind.

“Stay” offers an interesting juxtaposition with a strong verbal message about dealing with enemies and a smooth saxophone that streams through the beat. The story displays duality encompassed in Nas’s relation with an adversary and how he feeds off the hate.  He sates “I might kill you but do I got love for you. I want you dead under six feet of soil. At the same time, want you here to witness me while you in misery. We hate each other but it’s love. What a thug mystery.”

Nas portrays his current viewpoint on life through mature, fatherly eyes that gaze back with an understanding of the times he came up in. He shouts out to his people still “trapped in the ‘90’s.”  He tells the story of his life’s struggles through cycles of poverty, his rise to success, and his current state of reflective accomplishment living in luxury. He has moved on from the past and learned that it’s never good to be stuck in your old ways or youth, an attitude he presently sees and criticizes in people from his past. Exhibiting this attitude in track “A Queens Story” Nas states how he got into it with a guy “who still live out his old wild out days.” Giving off an orchestral feel, the song has trumpets and string instruments in the beat.

His lyrics address personal issues such as Twitter scandals involving his daughter and in the track “Daughter” he discusses the impacts of social media and everyone knowing his family business, saying “I know I ain’t the strictest parent.” “Bye Baby” is about his relationship with ex-wife Kelis, whose wedding dress he is holding on the album cover. He proves he’s moved on and has no grudges against her or any other negative stages of his life.

Ironically mirroring his message of taking the good with bad, there are a few mediocre tracks. His duet with Blige is the low point of the recording along with the following track “World’s An Addiction,” featuring Hamilton. The repetitive tempo on the track “Reach Out” with Blige lacks interest, although it still has a nice simplistic beat that stays true to early hip-hop styles. Both tracks also deliver Nas’s strict, solid lyrics and hold their spots in his list on intriguing collaborations. Just as your interest begins to fade out, “Summer on Smash” brings you right back into teenage summertime nostalgia, and Nas leaves us with a jam-packed stimulating album to his legacy. The diversity of this album can appeal to anyone with a love of classic hip-hop as well as listeners looking for new evolutionary beats.

Life is Good by Nas

By Michele Karr

Nas’s latest record, Life Is Good, presents a  fresh break in modern hip-hop and shows reflections of classic styles. The record hearkens back to the Golden Era of hip-hop when sneakers and street-wear were the fashion statements for this genre. His lyrical delivery is as tight as ever, and with metaphors and intricate rhyming schemes flows easily. In the track “Reach Out,” he spits “this is reminiscent to all the parks in the project, when my British Knights can rival your Foamposites. Don’t make me pull my Lottos out the closet.”

 This album satisfies the listener from start to finish through a dynamic list of featured artists such as Mary J. Blige, Rick Ross, and Anthony Hamilton, and includes a stunning posthumous track with Amy Winehouse. The diversity of sounds on the record range from early 90’s rap with simple but exciting boom-bap beats on tracks such as “Nasty” and “The Don,” to tracks “No Introduction” and “Stay” that offer jazz elements in a modern beat.  The sonic variation makes for easy listening and a song for any guise.

Nas portrays his current viewpoint on life through mature, fatherly eyes that gaze back with an understanding of the times he came up in.  He tells the story of his life’s struggles through cycles of poverty, rise to success and his current state of reflective accomplishment living in luxury. He has moved on from the past and learned that it’s never good to be stuck in your old ways or youth,  an attitude he sees often and criticizes. His lyrics address personal issues such as Twitter scandals involving his daughter and in the track “Bye Baby” his relationship with ex-wife Kelis, who’s wedding dress he is holding in the album cover. Nas leaves us with a slam-jam summer album to add to his legacy.