Zac Zinger: Two Sides of a Spinning Coin of East and West

In his 2019 breakout debut “Fulfillment,” multi-instrumentalist Zac Zinger explores an impressive breadth of musical instrumentation. Without exception, all the tracks feature a sonic exploration where he whips, caresses, attacks and bends notes with excellent accompaniment (pianist Kana Dehara, bassist Adam Neely and many others). Zinger is as much at home in creating melody with microtones (“American in Tokyo”) as he is in jumping straight into the bop-drenched “Cerberus.” His fluency in so many instruments and creativity in making each song fresh and unique are what makes the album soar.

What was your first instrument, and what do you play today?

I started on alto saxophone when I was nine years old, and it’s still what I would consider my primary instrument today. Professionally, I play soprano, alto, tenor and bari saxes; flute/piccolo; clarinet/bass clarinet; EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument); shakuhachi and many other ethnic flutes. I’ve also found myself playing keyboard from time to time.

What’s the fascination with non-traditional instrumentation- your father’s cane, an ocarina, etc.?

I’d dare to assume by non-traditional, you mean not traditional to the jazz medium––every instrument has its own tradition! I find putting my artistic voice through different timbres to be refreshing. Learning a new instrument is always a fun process to go through, and it often leads me to new musical ideas. I feel it also keeps things fresh for the audience to hear new sounds, and it’s a great way to facilitate cultural interest. As for the cane flute, it was less of a fascination and more of a fun surprise that it actually worked!

What do you like about traditional Japanese music and why did you fuse these sounds into a jazz feeling?

I first heard the shakuhachi in 2012 in Tokyo at a club called “B Flat” in Akasaka. The Tokyo Big Band was playing there, and an American named Bruce Huebner was featured on shakuhachi for a few tunes. It was the first time I’d ever even heard of the shakuhachi, and I was intrigued by its ability to expressively slide between notes. So for me, it was introduced in a jazz setting in the first place, and I just saw so much potential for exploration. It was only later that I discovered the storied history, traditions, and musical vocabulary associated with the instrument, and that has brought depth and longevity to my interest. Bruce helped me get my first shakuhachi, introduced me to a fantastic teacher in New York, and has been my shakuhachi mentor ever since. 

How did you get involved in the remake of Cowboy Bebop?

Mason Lieberman is the brain behind that particular operation. We had a slight crossover when I was finishing up my education at Berklee and he was just starting his. He reached out to see if I’d be interested in playing on an arrangement of his for charity towards the beginning of the lockdown, and I was happy to be a part of it! Recording remotely at home is just the way of life since COVID changed everything, so it was a matter of getting a good take and trusting Mason to bring it all to life.

Talk about “Fulfillment” – why did you embark on the project, what vibe were you going for?

Fulfillment is my debut album as an independent artist. I had produced and led a band on three collaborations with CAPCOM previously, but this was my first album featuring entirely my own compositions and with complete creative freedom. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I really felt like I was ready to record an album and make a statement of who I am as an artist. The fulfillment of a dream, of a calling, of a promise… it’s something I had to do. The album features music written over the past 12 years of my life, and represents my development as a writer and musician over that time frame. While I love exploring Japanese and pan-Asian fusion with jazz, my roots as a saxophonist are still very important to me, so it’s a mixture of contemporary jazz fusion and world fusion. I’m so proud of how it turned out, and so thankful to have been able to work with so many musicians I hold with the highest regard. 

What were some of the nontraditional instruments featured, and what about the musicians you invited to be on this album?

I switch around a lot, playing alto saxophone, shakuhachi (Japanese end-blown bamboo flute), dizi (Chinese transverse bamboo flute), and EWI. I was fortunate to have a slammin’ rhythm section join me, with Sharik Hasan on piano, Adam Neely on electric bass, and Luke Markham on drums. Kana Dehara also played piano on the neo-classical/jazz duet An American in Tokyo and Rhodes on Metamorphosis. I was also thrilled to be able to record three phenomenal musicians in Taiwan who actually inspired the last track on the album during my visit there in 2017, literally bringing the inspiration into the realization of the piece. They were Min-Chin Kuo on guzheng (Chinese zither), Chia-kun Chen on erhu (Chinese violin), and Yu-Wei Hsieh on vocals.

Favorite track? Hardest track to produce?

My favorite track changes based on how I’m feeling. They’re all my babies, I can’t choose! Each came with its own set of challenges, but Taiwan required me to be up until 4am in New York producing the recording session in Taipei over Skype. I don’t speak any Chinese, so getting notes to the musicians and scheduling the session was a challenge, but luckily I had a fantastic producer in Taiwan, Chi-Wei Ho, who made the whole thing happen!

How has your music been received and what are some of the preconceived notions about Eastern music from a US perspective?

I think it’d be easier to answer those in reverse order. Americans (and just about anyone from outside of Asia) tend to group all Asian music into one “flavor.” That is to say, as non-Asians we think of Asian music as a single sound, not bothering to distinguish between Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian, Thai, etc. Each country has a distinct musical tradition (sometimes dozens!) that is informed by its culture and history. Thus studying a specific traditional music is one way to bring you closer to that culture. To paint all Asian traditions with a broad brush is to ignore beauty and subtlety developed over hundreds or thousands of years. Listen closely, and you might just learn a thing or two!

That being said, my music is received differently in Japan than it is in the West. In the West, the shakuhachi is met with practical curiosity. “What is that thing?” “Is that a recorder?” “How does it play so many notes with only five holes?” It’s similar to the reaction I had when I first heard it. And it’s a great way to introduce someone to the culture of Japan.

In Japan, the traditional arts are not so popular anymore. Most people know what the shakuhachi is, but they might not have seen one before or really cared to listen. Often, when they see a foreigner playing it, they’re intrigued. “Why do you play the shakuhachi?” “I’ve never heard a shakuhachi play music like that.” Ironically, it takes a foreigner to rekindle their interest in their own traditional culture. But whether Western or Japanese, it facilitates a conversation between two cultures. And I take that responsibility seriously.

Some of your favorite collabs?

The 8-Bit Big Band is one of the most fun bands I’ve ever played with. It’s a big band that plays video game music. The audience is so passionate about the music and usually rambunctious! I also love playing with Adam Neely and his bands Jazz School and Sungazer, and while in Japan I’ve had the chance to play with Reikan Kobayashi, another great jazz shakuhachi player who keeps me on my toes.

Do you prefer the big band scene for jazz or smaller ensembles…and why?

I was brought up listening to classic big band music, so it has a special place in my heart. But I also love the individualism that players can bring to a smaller ensemble, and I think there’s still plenty to explore in meticulously arranged, through-composed music for small ensemble. I love both, but practically and financially a small ensemble is much easier to pull off, so I tend to write for various iterations of 2-8 piece groups. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to write more for big bands too!

Do you have new projects in the works?

During the quarantine I’ve had a lot of writing work, mostly for video game soundtracks. I have a few of my own tunes in the pipeline and a new YouTube series about the shakuhachi I’ve been meaning to launch, but it can be hard to find time to work on them. Most recently I wrote a new piece for shakuhachi and string quartet entitled Haiku in Variation. You can hear/watch the premiere of that on YouTube.

Do you have performances scheduled for 2021?

It’s hard to schedule anything right now. Venues don’t know when they’ll be able to open their doors, and musicians don’t want to be bringing together large crowds in the current climate. So as of now my live performance schedule is completely empty, which is something I haven’t been able to say since I first moved to New York eight years ago. But as soon as we get through this, I’ll be anxious to get out there and experience the thrill of playing for a live audience again.

How have you pivoted in these challenging times to get your music out to audiences?

Social media is a powerful tool, but we were all pretty much using that before the pandemic anyway. I’ve done a few live streams here and there, but mostly I’m using this time to plan and prepare new material for when musicians can play together again.

What’s your favorite thing about being a jazz musician?

Jazz is a genre of music that encourages you to be yourself. There is real value placed in originality, but within the construct of a musical vocabulary that’s been developing for over 100 years. Throughout its history jazz has been borrowing from other styles and innovating, and to this day it continues to evolve in interesting and exciting directions. For me, it’s the ultimate form of free artistic expression, and a privilege to be able to play. 

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Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.

(c) 2020 Debbie Burke

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