Early start led to Dana Leong's versatility

Wednesday February 5, 2014 2:49 PM

If knowing that Dana Leong plays both cello and trombone, if knowing his music combines modern technology with traditional techniques, if knowing his original compositions draw from classical, jazz, hip-hop and electronica, don't convince you that the San Francisco-born, New York City-based artist is a different kind of cat, then do an Internet image search for Dana Leong and Bandaloop.

The photos of Leong playing trombone suspended on the side of a building while others dance, also suspended on the side of a building, might just tip the scales for you. Sure, risk-taking and adventurous are terms often used to describe musicians, but perhaps not in such a literal fashion.

"I've always just chased what I loved, and have been fortunate enough to have people around me that were supportive and told me to do my own thing," Leong told The Beat.

This adventurous spirit was fostered at an early age by his mother, Sumi Nagasawa, a prominent piano teacher in San Francisco, who allowed Leong and his brother to experiment -- "touch, play, mess around with" -- a variety of instruments starting when they were but a year old. Leong settled on the cello by age 7 and trombone by age 8.

"I like to say that both are a musical high-wire act in that for each, no matter how great you might be, there is a large margin for error, and the chances you're going to mess up are pretty good," Leong said.

His early start and recognizable skill got Leong paying gigs in the San Francisco area by the time he was in his mid-teens, playing with a variety of local ensembles and alongside touring musicians such as Earth Wind & Fire, Whitney Houston and Ray Charles. He also began teaching at Stanford's Jazz Workshop at age 16, a gig that is still part of his resume as a clinician.

Leong compared learning music at an early age to learning a language, in that acquiring these skills while young can feel natural and allow them "to really stick with you." Perhaps learning new languages or adding vocabulary to existing languages -- which metaphor you prefer is up to you -- also comes naturally, as Leong's musical vocabulary includes a variety of projects with a variety of styles and stylistic combinations, from jazz/classical to world music to hip-hop.

The Dana Leong Trio features Leong accompanied by a bass player and scratch DJ. The trio blends past, present and future, from the cello to vinyl records to computers, Leong said.

"We each use computers, but each of us for different reasons," he explained.

The coming year is shaping up to be a busy and big one for the 32-year-old Leong. In addition to a new record, tour and educational program, he'll participate in Mark O'Connor's String Workshop at the Berklee College of Music and will be the keynote speaker at Yamaha's (Leong is an official Yamaha artist as a trombonist) Young Performing Artist Competition.

"I've always been fortunate to have strong premonitions," he told The Beat.

"And I think 2014 is going to be big."

If we were you, we'd believe him.

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