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#35 Zac Zinger

Zac Zinger is a Composer, Arranger, Orchestrator and Multi-Instrumentalist. He plays not only western woodwinds, but also traditional instruments, including the Japanese bamboo flute, the shakuhachi. Through the use of this variety of musical timbres, he creates new music. In this interview, I asked him about his thoughts and feelings on exploring new musical frontiers.

I visited your concert at Little Island. It was such an exciting performance. Recently, what kind of activities do you do mainly?


I recently released a new EP of my compositions in a jazz fusion style. I’m mostly playing saxophone, but with many special guests that make me very excited about it. But with the shakuhachi, I'm always trying to explore new ways to play jazz on it, and new things that I can borrow from the traditional music of Japan. As well, I'm usually involved in writing some kind of video game music. And when I have time away from all of that I'm trying to write more of my own music, whether for shakuhachi or anything else.

―How did the Covid-19 pandemic affect your musical activities?


During the pandemic, I think a lot of artists found this time that we always wanted to practice. And so, for the first couple of months, it was actually really nice. We all had an excuse to not have to go anywhere, and we could just sit in our rooms and practice. But that got pretty old after a while, and we didn't get to play with other musicians anymore. All the dates that we'd set up in the future started to evaporate, venues started closing, and projects started falling apart, many that had just started gaining momentum. For instance, I had just released my first album, maybe five months prior to the pandemic striking. I was just starting to really get my band going. And then everything fell apart. So, we're all still kind of in recovery mode from that. But you try to look for the silver lining. It gave us a lot of free time to work on new music and discover what's important for us in life. And I think I can speak for a lot of artists when I say that I think we all had a pretty similar experience in that regard. But we're getting back to it now. I think none of us take it for granted that we can play music together again.

-At your concert, you played many types of music instruments; not only shakuhachi, but also Taiwanese instruments. How many instruments do you play now?


During the show, I played, I think six instruments. A couple of different types of shakuhachi, a couple different types of saxophones, the “dizi,” which is the Chinese flute, and the EWI, the electric wind instrument. I've also been playing flute and clarinet for many years. That comes along with all of the different sizes of those and then a whole bunch of different world instruments that I just have an interest in. So, all told in my apartment, there's probably about 50 or 60 instruments up there. But they're all quite small. They're all woodwinds. So, you can just tie them together like bushels of flutes (laughs).

-So, why do you try to play too many types of instruments?


Saxophone was my first instrument. I started when I was nine years old. And when I got to high school, it was suggested that I start to learn flute and maybe clarinet because when you're playing in big bands, those are instruments that saxophonists are commonly expected to play. So that's all I really played until I got to college. There I was inspired by the Yellowjackets to pick up the EWI, which also really helps with my video game scoring. And then after college I found the shakuhachi while I was in Japan. I first saw it being played by an American alongside a big band. Had I first seen shakuhachi in its traditional context, I'm sure I would have thought it was cool, but I don't know, if I would have thought I could play it. It was seeing it in the jazz context that really was inspirational to me, thinking. “Wow, jazz shakuhachi! That's some unexplored territory that I want to be a part of investigating. And since then, I've discovered for myself this vast treasure trove of music in the Japanese traditional shakuhachi realm. That is a constant source of inspiration to borrow from to try to put it into my jazz vocabulary, as well as the joy of playing the traditional music. So, I’ve tried to expand my mind and musicality in that way. And then that philosophy extends to all the other instruments once you've started playing one instrument from a different culture. You just want to learn about all cultures through their native music. So, it's a never ending sort of lifelong venture to learn at least a little bit about each one. And through that, you can learn about culture.

-So, when you encountered shakuhachi, why did you decide to start to play it?


I found the shakuhachi when I was in Tokyo. I went to “Akasaka B Flat,” the jazz venue. And I saw Bruce Huebner, an American who's lived in Japan for many years, playing a feature piece on shakuhachi with Jonathan Katz’ Tokyo Big Band. And what inspired me about it was, first of all, the sound of it. I knew, I had heard that instrument before, but I'd never actually seen one. Then seeing how he was able to slide between the notes with these open holes; it was this level of expression that you can't get out of a western flute. It sounded like a voice in that way, to be able to play not only the notes, but in between the notes. So,

I went up to Bruce afterwards and talked to him about it. And he invited me out to his place to try it out. I'll never forget sitting by a pond, trying to get my first sound on shakuhachi just by spitting down this tube of

bamboo getting the worst sound you can imagine. But these koi fish all swam up to us as if they were listening. Now, they probably just wanted us to throw them some breadcrumbs. But it was such a charming Japanese experience to be playing shakuhachi by a pond and have koi fish swim up to you. So, I came back to New York after that. I had just moved here, and I didn't have any gigs, so I had all day to practice. I got my first shakuhachi, which was just a plastic model, and I practiced for six hours a day, just jazz scales, because that's all I really knew how to practice until I started to learn more about the traditional repertoire.

Shakuhachi is famously very difficult to play. So, what is the most difficult aspect for you to play shakuhachi?


It's a common misconception that shakuhachi is a more difficult instrument than a lot of other instruments might be. And the fact is, every instrument is extremely difficult. The reason people think that shakuhachi is more difficult is because most people don't just get a sound out of it as soon as you blow into it. The barrier to entry is a little bit higher: unlike a piano, where you can just press a key and you're immediately getting a sound and some kind of feedback, you might blow into a shakuhachi for two weeks and still not have any sound. But once you get over that initial hump, shakuhachi is just as difficult as any other instrument is to go far with. You know, you can play any instrument poorly. But, to play one at a high level is very difficult. So, I’m still trying to play at the highest level I can, but as they say in the shakuhachi world, “it takes a lifetime to master the shakuhachi, so the earlier you start, the longer it takes.”

-What do you think are the common points between US music and Japanese music?


So, the music of the shakuhachi in its purest form is solo music. It's just to be played alone, as Zen[1] monks would have played it in the Edo period.[2] So, they would wander from place to place, and they would play alone, often with these basket hats over their heads called “tengai.” They were supposed to be sort of faceless monks. So, it was more of a meditation exercise. Some might not even consider it music in the purest form. It was meant to replace the chanting of sutras in the Buddhist religious practice. Instead of sitting Zen, “zazen”, they would practice blowing Zen, “suizen.” This was a particular practice of the Fuke sect of Buddhism in the Edo period. It wasn't until after the Meiji restoration[3] began, and after shakuhachi was banned for four years, that it came back and people started to play it more musically. They started playing with other instrumentalists. They were never allowed to play with koto and shamisen before that. This was when we saw an explosion in the shakuhachi’s musical development. It began to emulate the vocal techniques of folk music. So, I think it's similar to American music in the way that we derive the blues scale from slave songs that oppressed black people used to sing. When they didn't have any instruments to play, they would sing, and they developed a musical vocabulary of their own that has evolved and influenced every aspect of American music, including instrumental music. Likewise, a lot of the modern techniques on the shakuhachi, or traditional techniques on the shakuhachi came from the way people sang in Japan at the time.

-Aside from traditional music, Japanese music includes genres such as J-Pop, anime and game soundtracks. Is there a shared feature of all Japanese music?


One thing that I find really interesting and different between American music and Japanese music is the way the beat is felt. So, in American music, a lot of the times, especially anything you might dance to, you'll feel the beat emphasized on two and four in a song that has four beats per measure. Frequently in Japanese music, and in all Japanese traditional music, the beat is felt on one and three. And that feel change is significant.

Speaker 2 14:15

How do you fuse Japanese music with US music?

Speaker 1 14:20

So, the shakuhachi, as previously mentioned, was a solo instrument for most of its existence. It wasn't until relatively recently, maybe 140 or 150 years ago, that it really started becoming an ensemble instrument. And when it did, it was a guest in other styles of music that had existed for generations already. So in sankyoku music alongside koto, shamisen, and voice, the shakuhachi needed to create a role that didn't really exist before. It was finding its place. In the same way, the music that I'm writing is jazz at its heart. So the way I treat the shakuhachi in that context is as a guest in the jazz idiom. All styles of music are different languages. Jazz is its own language with its own vocabulary. If I'm a classical musician with no familiarity with the jazz style, and I try to play jazz, even if I play all the notes exactly as they're written you're going to hear an accent; you're going to hear that this is not my first language. I'm going to sound like a classical musician playing jazz. The same goes for shakuhachi players, especially for who don't have a fundamental understanding of the jazz vocabulary. But it goes the other way too. If a jazz musician tries to play Japanese music, you're probably going to hear a thick accent because they aren't quite familiar with the vocabulary. Even though it's not vocal music, they're not familiar with the musical phrasing of the style. So, the way I've found it's effective to bring the shakuhachi into jazz, or any style for that matter, is the same way as how in English, we might borrow a word from a different language. So, for instance, we don't have a word for cliché in English, so we borrow that word from French and use it in an English sentence in a very natural way. In the same way I try to borrow musical vocabulary from Japanese music that I think is unique and beautiful. And through internalizing the language of Japanese music by practicing honkyoku and sankyoku and all of the Japanese music, I can then incorporate the vocabulary in an authentic way into my jazz lines.

-Many Japanese musicians study in the US to learn American music. But some American musicians also live in Japan. For example, Patrick Bartley, Zack Auslander, and so on. So, what is the most attractive aspect of Japan to Americans?


I don't know if I can speak for all Americans on that one. I can say what I appreciate about the music in Japan. But most Americans that I know that have visited Japan for the first time come back wanting to live there. They are enchanted with their first encounter with such a different culture, how differently it functions, and how special the results of those differences present themselves.

People are enchanted by the cleanliness of Japan, by the politeness of the people, by how everything runs seemingly on time and perfectly. I’ll always remember the first time I was there. I came around the corner, and people were making mochi in a town square. And I didn't know what mochi was. To me, they were just some people hitting something with a hammer and screaming about it. It seemed completely crazy. And then an older gentleman came over and offered me some fresh made mochi with anko. It was delicious! It was so special, and they were so kind. These are the sorts of special things that seemed to pop up around every corner, especially on your first visit to Japan. So, I think people are enchanted by all those differences. It’s eye-opening to see a place that can function so well, in such a different way than you knew previously.

The same goes for the music. Japan evolved in isolation for hundreds of years, and its music went off in a very different direction from its roots inspired by Chinese music. It became its own thing while evolving in isolation. For me, it's the traditional music that will always be the most interesting part of Japan, whether that's in a kabuki context, or in a purely musical context, or in Zen context. It's a unique evolution that's so foreign to me that it acts as a bottomless well that I can never, I can never get enough inspiration from.

-Finally, please tell us about your future plans or dreams.


Haha, my wife is always asking me the same question. I never have a good answer….

For the future, I want to keep doing what I'm doing. And that's exploring the shakuhachi in ways that it's never been explored before, whether that's in a jazz context or contemporary classical context, or in any context that I just haven't even thought of yet. I think it's an instrument and, Japanese instruments in general, are instruments in the West that have not been fully explored. Not even close to fully explored. So, I've made it a focus of my work to explore it in as many ways as I can. And I'm always excited whenever I have the time to just dive in and see what I haven't learned yet. I’d like to tour Japan with my band as well, it'd be a lot of fun!

[1] One of the way of Buddhist training

[2] Japanese period from 1600 to 1868

[3] The change of politics and society from Edo period in japan

J-collabo Interview: Zac Zinger


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