Cory Wong had two weeks to live. Or maybe he was fine. The doctors honestly weren’t sure why his right arm kept going numb in the aftermath of the concussive head injury he’d suffered, but following a month-and-a-half of visits and tests and second opinions, their best guess was that he had a blood clot with the potential to reach his brain at any moment. If that happened, death would be nearly instantaneous.
“‘No way I’m having a blood clot,’” the Vulfpeck guitarist remembers saying to his 16-year-old self. “I’d worked way too hard to get my license and hang out with my friends that summer, and nothing was going to get me down. I decided that if the worst might happen, all I could do was spend my remaining days doing what made me happy and spreading as much joy as I could in the world.”
Wong survived, of course, and while his symptoms eventually faded away, the relentlessly defiant brand of optimism he cultivated that summer never did. In fact, nearly two decades later, it forms the bedrock of his ecstatic new album, ‘The Optimist.’ Recorded in spontaneous sessions with a series of all-star lineups, the collection showcases both Wong’s prodigious instrumental virtuosity and his broad emotional reach. The songs are profoundly funky, infectiously joyful, and as playful as they are peerless. Paired with his quirky music videos, the tracks feel retro and futuristic all at once. At a time of bitter political strife and deep cultural divisions, Wong has crafted something truly unifying: an album that delights in the pleasures of human connection and revels in the limitless possibility of artistic collaboration.
Hailed as a “multifaceted” artist by NPR and “the most famous Minnesota musician you’ve probably never heard of” by The Current, Wong’s most recognized for his guitar work with Midwestern funk heroes Vulfpeck these days, but the Minneapolis wunderkind actually got his start playing four strings rather than six.
“When I was a kid, I got a white fender jazz bass and I freaked out,” remembers Wong. “I had the most intense goose bumps. It felt liked I’d been given my sword and my journey could finally begin.”
In the years that followed, Wong would go on to graduate from music school and establish himself as a uniquely prolific guitarist, composer, producer, and sideman. He found work behind the scenes on shows like NBC’s ‘The Voice,’ toured extensively with chart-topping singer/songwriter Ben Rector, and played alongside everyone from Gene Simmons, Questlove, and The Blind Boys of Alabama to Blake Shelton and Bootsy Collins. At home in Minneapolis, he began jamming with Prince’s rhythm section in weekly sessions that attracted A-list players from around the world (Prince himself could often be found in the audience or onstage, and special guests ranging from John Mayer to Jimmy Vaughan might turn up on any given night). It was at one of these infamous jam sessions that Wong first met the members of Vulfpeck, and it wasn’t long before he was in the studio and on the road with the group full time. Wong’s guitar contributions made such an impact that the band even named the final track of their acclaimed 2016 album ‘The Beautiful Game’ for him.
As much as Wong loved backing up other artists, he decided to step into spotlight on his own for the first time in 2017, releasing a self-titled debut album that introduced the world to his quirky blend of high-octane musicianship and lo-fi visuals. The Current praised his “colorful, 90’s-infused aesthetic,” while The Irish Times described the music as “impeccable,” likening it to “the Swampers, Sly Stone, Weather Report and maybe a touch of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils.” Wong’s never been one to rest on his laurels, though, and the dust hadn’t even settled on his debut before the wheels had already begun turning on his sophomore effort.
“I got a call one day from Ricky Peterson, who’s played organ with David Sanborn and George Benson,” says Wong. “He was coming to town, so I told him I had some tunes I was working on and we should get together and record them the following week. The only problem was I didn’t actually have any songs and I didn’t have a session booked.”
Ever the optimist, Wong willed it all into existence in just six days, penning a batch of brand new tracks and wrangling his longtime mentors from Prince’s band, drummer Michael Bland and bassist Sonny Thompson, to form a rhythm section. After the success of the initial session, Wong put together another day of recording in Minneapolis with an entirely new group, and then captured a third session in Nashville with the Ben Rector Band backing him up. All the while, Wong was sending the tracks off to collaborators near and far, including German star Marti Fischer (who recorded from Berlin), British singer KATIS (who recorded from London), and local legends The Hornheads.
“The Hornheads are best known as Prince’s horn section,” explains Wong, “and their leader, Michael Nelson, did most of the horn arrangements for Prince. The guys are all 20-30 years older than us, but we fit right in as friends because they love seeing young musicians with such passion. Michael told me that after Prince died, it was really fun for him to find a new artist to work with on stuff like this, and it’s been a great community-building thing. We even have a musicians’ racquetball club together now.”
Exhilarating album opener “Jax” finds The Hornheads in peak form, complementing Wong’s smooth-as-butter groove with punchy fills and breaks, while the soaring “’91 Maxima” pairs them with folk elder statesman Joe Savage, who gets trippy with his jaw harp and pedal steel. Though much of the album is instrumental, guest singers are peppered throughout the collection, bringing additional emotional depth to Wong’s acrobatic compositions. The elastic “Light As Anything” features soulful vocals from Ripe frontman Robbie Wulfsohn, while Vulfpeck singer Antwaun Stanley lends his considerable pipes to the aptly named “Jumbotron Hype Song,” and KATIS adds a charming breeziness to the bouncing “Juke On Jelly.”
As he did with his debut, Wong filmed each of the sessions and captured his remote collaborators recording in front of green screens so that he could dub them in to a series of accompanying music videos. Deliberately campy, the videos play out like old public access television shows captured on VHS tape, the kind of intentionally dated programming that would fit right in with the current lineup of Adult Swim. In addition to being wildly entertaining, the videos allow for Wong to make his concerts true multimedia events, with the green screen footage of his guest vocalists and collaborators projected onscreen to accompany the live band.
“My stage persona is Andy Kaufman meets Tony Robbins,” laughs Wong. “I want people to leave my show saying, ‘Wow, I cant believe how funky and amazing that was, but also my stomach hurts from laughing so hard and now I feel the most motivated I’ve ever been in my entire life.’”
It’s a lofty goal, no doubt, but as his new album proves, you’d better not underestimate Cory Wong. After all, when you’re an optimist, anything’s possible.