Hey Peter! We last spoke in 2016 about your jazz band, The Lintet. What’s been new with you?
My work is always a reflection of my own personal life experiences, and my personal life has been quite a roller coaster to say the least! After finishing my graduate work for jazz studies at Rutgers University, I had the pleasure to work and study with Slide Hampton for about two years, an NEA Jazz Master and my musical hero in terms of the trombone and compositions / arrangements. This experience with a master is invaluable and definitely inspired all of my music. However, I also got married, started a business, started teaching at established organizations, so you know, adulting! These past few years have been the first time I started working as a freelance musician without working a 9 to 5 job or attending school.
Wow, congratulations! Alongside “adulting,” how has your work evolved and matured in the last three years?
To be honest, I feel like my music has matured dramatically in the past few years in the sense that I am no longer functioning in a purely academic mindset and I am honestly trying to reach out to an audience. To me, this music is about a real community, so if you don’t have a way to connect to people in a meaningful way, then you are always in the position of ‘hoping’ your career will work out. I also am starting to understand how to tell more of a story, which has made it easier to create meaningful music.
That’s lovely. We definitely understand the importance of building and sustaining community. On that note, how have you developed your interest in Taiwanese American fusion jazz — if you even identify with that genre?
I think there’s two parts to Taiwanese American jazz; there’s the actual blending of the musical aspects like harmony, melody, rhythm, etc. Then there’s the more cultural blending, which to me means tapping into my spiritual and emotional journey as a Taiwanese American person. I don’t know if this is an actual genre as much as an idea, but I definitely have maintained interest in my people and music both here and in Taiwan. I also met some fantastic musicians who have travelled here from Taiwan, including a young vibraphonist named Chien Chien Lu who is now playing with some big names, so definitely keep an eye out for all of those Taiwanese jazz musicians!
What do American Jazz and traditional Taiwanese music have in common?
I would need to research more about traditional Taiwanese music in order to make a better assessment about this question. However, I know it gets quite confusing when we talk about ‘traditional Taiwanese music’. We could be referring to music our parents or grandparents grew up with during the 60s or we could be talking about the music of the indigenous tribes. When we talk about American Jazz, I tend to refer to it to Black American Music in order to specify where the music comes from. I will say at the end of the day, if you go far back enough, the root of all music is from Africa. If you listen to the music from Amis tribe in Taiwan, they are utilizing similar instruments, musical tones, and rhythms you’ll find in certain regions of Africa. In fact, the pentatonic sound that’s associated with East Asian music is what you’ll also find in the roots of American jazz.
I believe America jazz has made its mark in many parts of the world, especially areas that have strong American influence. Sometimes, I’ll hear groove, harmony, or melodies that are similar to some American jazz standards. I’ve had people come up to me after our performances and mention they recognize a Teresa Teng melody as a famous jazz standard. There is no question that the Western influence has seeped into the Asian popular music culture.
Tell me about the name of the album, “New Age, Old Ways.” What does innovation in music mean to you?
Jazz has been around for over 100 years, and yet, there are still many musicians who pursue this music, regardless of the conditions in this country. Jazz has definitely evolved over the course of these years, but the essential elements of the music still exist to this day. New Age, Old Ways refers to the musicians’ struggle to uphold the tradition in an increasingly capitalistic and technology-driven society. To make the meaning more exaggerated, my comic book (also titled New Age, Old Ways) takes place 100 years after John Coltrane’s death in the year of 2067.
In my opinion, musical innovation does not exist in the same way it used to. Everything we hear now has been done already. Even if someone labels certain music as ‘new’, it had to have come from somewhere! Music doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Yes, there is certain ‘new’ music theory that can get quite complicated, or ‘new’ sounds being made. However, these are transformations that happen due to a musician’s personal contributions. The musical ‘innovators’ in jazz have been musicians that really developed their personal concepts and made an impression in American culture. Some of these musicians include Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane.
The innovations are not what interest me in music. Rather, it’s about connection with the community both culturally and socially. I think once we dig deep into these musical innovations, we’ll find they are born in part by individual genius minds combined with a fertile musical community.
What is the composition process for you like?
My source of inspiration is probably the most important aspect of my compositions. I believe having a story behind the music helps to get a more ‘cinematic’ feel and helps the listeners understand what is happening. Sometimes, I’ll compose based off my life experiences. Other times, I just compose because I want to work out some harmonic ideas. Once I establish the ‘setting’ in my head, I sit at the piano and start shaping the composition to reflect that idea.
I like to come up with a melody first, as that’s what captures the listeners’ ears first. Once the melody is established, I can get a feel for what the rhythm and harmony might be. I really owe a lot of my harmonic and melodic understanding to the jazz standard repertoire that comes from the Great American Songbook. As a jazz musician, you are expected to learn hundreds of these tunes, each one encompassing a special melodic / harmonic quality that makes it stand out amongst the others. Because these sounds are absorbed in my musical DNA, I can have clear choices when I’m making my own compositions.
So you grew up listening to Taiwanese and Chinese music. What elements of music feel distinctly “Taiwanese” or “Chinese” to you? How did you incorporate these with the American Jazz canon?
I don’t know if I can say I grew up listening to Taiwanese and Chinese music in a dedicated manner, but I definitely absorbed a lot of the music from osmosis, especially on karaoke nights with my parents’ friends. I also grew up in a Taiwanese church, where a lot of hymns were sung with Taiwanese lyrics and the community casually sang their favorite songs from their youth. I’ve been doing my own personal research on music from certain tribes in Taiwan, which all have their own distinct characteristics. Just to make a distinction, I’ll go into my thoughts on the older popular Taiwanese and Chinese songs.
I think the one common threads throughout East Asian music is the melodic use of the pentatonic scale. A lot of their instruments are based off this particular set of five notes. If you deconstruct the melodies, you’ll find a repeated use of these five notes accompanied with special inflections in between. Another common thread I noticed is the use of an overarching melody that kind of floats over the rhythmic and harmonic structure. In a way, it’s kind of operetic (maybe carried-over from an older era?)
I think these two elements of the pentatonic scale and the ‘singing’ melodies are also a common thread in the jazz idiom. My ears naturally gravitate towards the music I heard growing up, so it’s only natural for me to compose using these two elements. The more obvious combination of these elements can be found on my first album “With Respect” where I took the popular Taiwanese and Chinese folk songs and re-arranged them in the jazz style. My new album “New Age Old Ways” has a song called “Song of the Amis” which is based of the music from the Amis Tribe in Taiwan.
I believe at this point, jazz music should be considered ‘world music’ because you can find it in almost every major city in the world. Over the course of jazz history, there have been musicians combining American jazz with other influences, including the more Latin American rhythms and Indian Classical Music harmonies. So whenever I mix the Taiwanese songs with the jazz idiom, I simply look at it as a celebration of the two cultures.
Tell me about the decision to pair the CD with a comic book. What was that creative process like?
I saw Wayne Shorter’s album Emanon paired with an awesome graphic novel and I thought maybe I could try something like that myself! I am also a huge anime fan and a more recent rekindled fan of manga, so I really saw an opportunity here to create a special collaboration. In this day and age, it’s hard to just sell an album of all originals to a wide audience by itself, so adding a comic book to go along with it only made sense!
Kelly Lin, who is a fantastic Taiwanese American artist living in Chicago, did the album artwork for my first album, so I thought “no one is better to do this than her” as well as “no one else will take this idea more seriously than her”. She is a big jazz fan, so it was only natural to ask her to be the illustrator. She also works full time as an industrial designer at a company I cannot name (sorry), but she is a freelancing artist and hustles pretty hard on the side. I definitely recommend checking out her stuff at https://www.etsy.com/shop/sketchbites.
The creative process was simple in a way (but very time consuming). The first step was to create a story. Just to give a background of the story, it’s set in the future, year of 2067, centered around the TNT Quartet band. The main character, based on myself, is going through some tough times in the music business trying to play jazz in an unforgiving world (sound familiar?) while also trying to overcome his own personal struggles.
What was the impetus for this?
I wanted to portray these elements to help normalize the image of jazz musicians that we tend to stereotype based off popular movies / media. At this point, I had given Kelly Lin some portraits of the other band members so she could get started on sketching some ideas for the general look.
Second step was to flush out the story into pages and panels. This was probably the most time-consuming part: I had to space the story out correctly to make it fit within the page count. You have to write the story out like a script for a movie in order to make it clear enough to the illustrator as to what you are trying to portray.
So the comic book starts to take shape. How did you assign music to it?
Once this was done, I thought about which tracks from my album fit which pages the best, and I distributed them evenly throughout the story. Kelly Lin received all of this information, and gave me a preliminary sketch to check all the panels before inking in the rest of the details. The most non-creative, and most annoying, aspects came when I had to figure out distribution and manufacturing. I cannot tell you how ecstatic I was when I finished everything and saw the finished product! Kelly Lin really did a fantastic job, and I’m hoping we can collaborate again for future chapters.
That’s incredible. Any advice for musicians and creatives with similar aspirations (or those inspired by you)?
People tell me they want to self-produce albums and projects and all I can say is “good luck”! I’m glad I did it, but I am trying to take a break now from all of that and just concentrate on music. People work hard in this business to just survive, and I applaud all of them for their efforts!
You definitely deserve a break. How has the Taiwanese and Taiwanese American community responded to your work?
I’ve always had a great positive reaction from the Taiwanese and Taiwanese American community. I think because it’s hard to find as many creatives in our community, they tend to be more supportive of people who pursue these kinds of careers. A number of my Taiwanese American friends frequently attend my performances and album release parties. Even if there is not a significant financial gain from my work, just feeling the energy from the community is enough for me to keep going.
To be honest, I think my first album “With Respect” did a better job in terms of marketing to the Taiwanese and Taiwanese American community because it featured actual folk songs. People tend to relate to music they recognize, which makes a lot of sense. My band “The Lintet” at that time had great traction, performing at all kind of events including “Passport to Taiwan”. For most Taiwanese people, I am their ‘jazz’ friend.
It’s important for us to keep supporting one another in fields that are unconventional for Taiwanese Americans. If we want to see more representation throughout the arts, we’ll have to put some time and money into supporting their cause. This is the only way we can thrive in this society.
Yes! We’ve always believed in creating the art we felt missing from our lives. We are so proud to see you manifesting this. Do you have any upcoming performances we can attend?
Good news for both my New Jersey and New York Taiwanese friends! Both of these shows will feature my TNT Quartet featuring myself (trombone), JD Allen (tenor sax), Ian Kenselaar (bass), and Nic Cacioppo (drums) performing my original compositions from the new album “New Age Old Ways”
- TNT Quartet Live at the Hyatt Regency (New Brunswick, NJ) from 8pm-11pm as part of the New Brunswick Jazz Project series.
- TNT Quartet Official CD Release (NYC) at Birdland Theater (44th Street btwn 8th & 9th Ave) from 7pm-8:30pm. All attendees will receive a FREE copy of the comic book. Students get ½ off tickets! Purchase tickets here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/peter-lin-tnt-quartet-cd-release-tickets-60933713377?fbclid=IwAR39K-CwGJ43qbxGB37gQSbDA8Bx4Im2o8BNJs37ptPULIBJCXRqSu9_HQE