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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Othello | Actors from the London Stage

aftls13By Miranda Stryker

Othello, put on at UNC Charlotte October 16-20 by Actors from the London Stage, features just five actors, each playing multiple roles.  With only the essential props on stage, minimalist costumes to distinguish roles, and selective lighting, this production creates an atmosphere for imaginations to swim around in.

The play is Shakespeare’s dramatic tale of lies, jealousy, misdirection and deceit that you might know from a high school or college course, with classmates reading the roles in monotone and stumbling over Shakespearian English.  Its been done for big and small screens and in countless theaters, but rarely as captivating as this production put on by the troupe of self-directed actors.

It all begins with the acting, of course.  Jude Akuwudike (Othello), Richard Neale (Iago), Jan Shephard (Roderigo), Jack Whitam (Cassio), and Alinka Wright (Desdemona) are all veterans of some of London’s best theatre groups, and masters of the body language and facial expressions so vital in communicating the script with such minimal set and props.  They recite Shakespeare’s dialogue with emotional conviction and speak fluently, even changing accents with role-switches.

Though the stage is only set with five chairs and a circle made from white sheets, the actors create a multisensory experience with small trinkets and instruments set on the ground under the chairs.  During an intense argument or fight scene, the actors “off-stage” would play a triangle or dissonant sounds from Tibetan Singing Bowls of different sizes.  To create foreshadowing or raise excitement, the seated actors would also stomp their feet—one at first, then someone else would join in, and then another until tension built up and all would cease.

Neale, Shephard, and Wright also have smooth and easy singing voices that shine in the couple of songs sung in the play.  Neale’s voice is angelic, especially in the chapel scene when he is just chanting prayers from his seat for effect.  Wright as Desdemona and Shephard as Emilia portray dwindling hopes with their beautiful saddened singing of the “Willow, Willow” song.

The way the simple set is used is very strategic and symbolic.  The play takes place within the circle of white sheets, where every character recites their monologues as well, except for Iago.  At one point, Neale steps off the stage during a monologue, walks down the aisle, around the center floor section, and stops to pose a rhetorical question to an audience member.  He is so animated and engaging—the audience was clearly tickled.  This use of set raised literary questions, like why the play would be named Othello rather than after Iago, who is the ultimate villain and schemer and pulling most of the story’s strings, after all.  It makes you wonder that the actors made an interesting enough distinction by letting only him leave the circle.

In the world of modern mass entertainment there are countless predictable TV shows and movies, ideas done over and over, seemingly dumber and dumber each time.  In film, convoluted back-stories, plot-twists, explosions and special effects take precedence over thoughtful and alluring dialogue between characters, whereas on the stage, acting is what captures and carries the viewers’ thoughts into the fantastical world of the story.  Words and delivery are everything, and these five actors demonstrate it phenomenally in their production of Othello.

Attention Minds and Ears

By Miranda Stryker

With the recent installations of Liz Miller and Shannon Collis’ recent exhibitions, UNC Charlotte’s Rowe Galleries have become a wonderland of vibrant fabrics and illustrated soundscapes.

Shannon Collis|Frequencies     Liz Miller|Invasive Adornment

It took Miller, who holds an MFA in drawing and painting from the University of Minnesota, just three days to install her baroque-inspired, bolted felt fantasy land Invasive Adornment.  She uses high contrast colored and bold floral-patterned felts and fabrics cut into shapes resembling gothic era ornament in various sizes.  Tailoring each installation to the room it’s in upon arrival, Miller creates peculiar spaces by manipulating otherwise two-dimensional fabric shapes into large-scale three-dimensional entities.  Her fabric choice and assembly methods constantly play with your perception of what is there.  Some of the entities are hung from the ceiling with clear wire, giving the illusion that pieces are free-standing though only made of felt.  Other pieces sprawl out into the floor space looking like fantastical animals emerging from the ground and creating meandering walkways to navigate within the art.  Layers of contrasting colors and fabrics of different shapes are connected with industrial looking bolts giving the illusion of weight, a key contrast with the use of light and bright colors in this particular installation.

While Miller excites the imagination and the eyes, Canadian artist Shannon Collis’ Frequencies in the upper gallery of Rowe engages your ears and eyes and depicts a sense of time.  If you’ve ever wondered what art sounds like, Collis, who has an MFA in printmaking from the University of Alberta, has an idea for you.  Part of her installation is a set of four clear films scrolling vertically with various black compositions on them.  When the films scroll, beeps and buzzes of different frequencies and volumes sound as a reaction to the black on the film.  In the hall, she has installed square boxes with white bottoms containing tiny black silicon beads. Each box has a small speaker attached at the center underneath, playing a different sequence of sounds on a loop that move the beads.  With the element of time added through how frequently the sounds play and the duration of the exhibit, the beads disperse in different forms and continue to disperse as the sounds loop.  Collis’ sound pieces are accompanied by her collection of prints from the beads dispersals on the white surfaces as well as the resulting compositions of overlapping film patterns.

Both of these accomplished artists have really stepped outside of their college concentrations in their pursued works, but still keep those original inspiring elements in their two-dimensional works that accompany the installations.

Closing receptions in Rowe Galleries at 5:00 pm on Wednesday, October 30th.

Justin Timberlake — The 20/20 Experience

By Miranda Stryker

Justin Timberlake is in love and shouting it from the chart tops with The 20/20 Experience, letting everyone know that he is still a prominent figure in the music industry. 

Where a lot of contemporary hip-hop artists favor the distorted electronic noises used in dubstep, Timberlake is taking it back to the 1970s and merging into the neo soul genre by using more traditional instruments and complex song structures under his signature upper-register vocals.

Tracks like “Suit and Tie,” “That Girl,” and “Let The Groove In” feature old soul Tower of Power-like horn arrangements, along with neo soul cool piano sounds and synth rhythms like those also used in “Strawberry Bubblegum.”  Timberlake’s vocal style and continued production collaboration with Timbaland allow for these new changes while still keeping a sound that appeals to the mainstream market.

This album is a huge step forward for the former boy-band leader in his musical exploration, but it’s not without his old tricks.  The tracks without horns, piano or guitar recall Timberlake’s 2006 album, FutureSex/LoveSounds, also produced with Timbaland.  Though 20/20 has some bold tracks with refreshing musicality, because it was recorded in just four weeks the similarities in tempo and vocals in the filler tracks make it all too easy to tune them out occasionally when listening from start to finish.  Luckily the track sequence and eclectic influences keep it interesting and the more arousing songs reel you right back in.

For instance, Timberlake goes ‘90s with “Tunnel Vision,” which sounds like his personal version of Aaliyah’s 1998 hit, “Are You That Somebody.”  Funkadelic and more ‘70s funk/soul influences are evident in the introductory speech and heavy bass line in “That Girl,” as well as the intergalactic references to women and sex in “Spaceship Coupe,” which also features a traditional guitar solo.  This influence is skillfully paired with string washes and neo soul drum beats giving them some solid flow.

Being an icon of pop culture since adolescence raises the question of whether Timberlake can bring soulful baby-making music back to the mainstream with 20/20 Experience and the soon-to-be-released 20/20 Experience: 2 of 2, or whether noisy dubstep, and misogyny and thug life, will return to the top of the charts.