C-ville Weekly, January 6th, 2016 by Eric J. Wallace

It isn’t the quest for red-carpet accolades, social media props, YouTube views or Spotify listens that drives MoJa. The Charlottesville-based quartet, co-fronted by violinist Morwenna Lasko and guitarist Jay Pun, wants to make better art.

“We don’t view making music as a commercial enterprise,” says Pun. “Rather, we think of it as a continual process of discovery.”

Taking a listen to the band’s fresh-off-the-mastering-board December 15 release, The Hollow—which is, more than anything else, a tenaciously virtuosic testimony to the possibilities of acoustic music—you can’t miss the fact that the duo’s exploration-driven scholarly purism is the album’s defining influence.

And there’s a good reason for that.

Unlike your average symphony or self-taught acoustic musician, Pun and Lasko seem to approach their music from a genre-transcending, Bruce Lee-esque perspective, using education as a vehicle for liberating themselves from the limitations imposed by traditional forms. In other words, they’ve really gotten into jazz.

“The thing that kicked our artistic development into an entirely different plane was the decision to study jazz theory under Mr. Roland Wiggins,” says Lasko. “We’d both graduated from college and had been playing professionally around town for a few years, and felt the need to learn more.”

Vocalizing this desire to local musicians led to Pun and Lasko’s getting turned on to the legendary—but also somewhat reclusive—Wiggins, who has a reputation for offering mentorship and private lessons to particularly gifted protégés.   

Born in Philadelphia, the 83-year-old earned his doctoral degree from the Juilliard School, and has taught music theory at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst College, Hampshire College and, presently, the University of Virginia.

Concerning his approach to the craft, Wiggins has been described by Dr. William Zurcher—an acclaimed music theorist and instructor in his own right—as being “an expert on esoteric music theory, including various synthetic structures (tonal clusters, synthetic scales, strata harmony), [whose major contribution is] a systematic study of statistical tonal tendencies in an effort to gain a general insight into tonal behavior.” While this technical mouthful may mean nada for laymen, what it translates to is Wiggins being an extraordinarily influential figure among prominent jazz musicians of the 1960s and ’70s. Wiggins worked with and taught greats such as Ella Fitzgerald, Yusef Lateef, Billy Taylor, Sonny Fortune, Donald Byrd, Kenny Barron and John Coltrane.

“Each time we meet with [Wiggins], the first thing he says is, ‘Have you learned everything yet?’” laughs Pun. “After awhile, I realized that the question was meant to emphasize the fact that the artistic process is something that will never be concluded—it’s a reiteration of the commitment to a lifelong course of study.”

For Pun and Lasko, both in their early 30s, the Wiggins’-inspired epiphany of musical artistry as a skill to be continuously developed served as a major catalyst for The Hollow.

MoJa’s The Hollow was released December 15. The largely acoustic album reflects the contemplative space songwriters often occupy. Photo: File photo

“In a way, the album is us stepping out of the shadows of our musical influences,” says Pun. “While we wanted to honor our heroes and the traditions that shaped their music, The Hollow is us melding and blending and disseminating those influences in a manner we feel is true and original.” Put another way: The album can basically be seen as the group’s rite of passage, with the recordings serving as a line of demarcation for its creators’ development, marking the transition from the formative musings of youth to a pair of mature artists commanding a stylistic aesthetic that, whether applied to a reprised Irish fiddle tune or a funky gypsy jazz number, is theirs and theirs alone.

To fully appreciate MoJa’s evolutionary course, it helps to get a feel for the duo’s musical beginnings. “My parents were artists, so I grew up in a household that placed high value on creativity,” says Lasko. “There was always music in the house … my father had a great record collection and played, among other things, the accordion, while my sisters played the cello and piano.”

Surrounded by so much music, Lasko picked up her first instrument at the age of 3. “I remember watching ‘Sesame Street’ and being absolutely floored by this guest musician, Itzhak Perlman,” says Lasko. “He was playing classical violin and I was just mesmerized. I knew I had to do that.”

Lasko’s parents enthusiastically provided their daughter with a violin and lessons. Yet, while classical symphonies comprised the bulk of her formal studies, it was her father’s eclectic musical taste that provided the backbone for Lasko’s earliest musical investigations. “My dad was into everything,” explains Lasko. “He loved and listened to all the jazz greats, but was also really into popular stuff like The Beatles, or Joni Mitchell, or like the fingerstyle guitarist John Martin, or gypsy jazz guys like Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli.”

Lasko learned to love and, more importantly, to play a diverse range of styles; she’s worked hard to master the idiosyncratic demands of various foundational techniques. It was these studies that, in her teenage years, led her to form a band with her father, enabling the budding violinist to test her improvisational chops in real time, onstage before a live audience.

“We played gigs all over Connecticut,” says Lasko. “Our repertoire was this big mix of stuff—Scottish and Irish music, gypsy swing, fiddle tunes, just a lot of traditional-type material.” And although eventually she outgrew the “old-time” music—the formal constraints of the various genres ultimately became frustratingly limiting—Lasko is quick to insist that those early stylistic forays served as a contextualizing backdrop for her burgeoning interest in jazz music, which itself led to her decision to attend the Berklee College of Music, where by a twist of fate she would, some years later, meet Pun.

“For me things went a little differently,” laughs Pun, a native of Charlottesville. “My path wasn’t quite as, ah, straightforward as Morwenna’s.” Pun is the son of first-generation immigrants from Thailand who wanted to give him all the opportunities and luxuries they perceived to be indicative of a healthy American upbringing, which meant, among other things, piano lessons.

“I never really got into the piano,” says Pun. “I did the lessons for about five or six years but, whether I was a bad student or had an uninspiring teacher, I just never really got into it.”

What Pun means is memorizing Beethoven, Mozart and their brethren wasn’t his thing. To the contrary, he was more of a Jackson 5 kind of guy. “I remember being a little kid and seeing The Jackson 5,” says Pun. “I loved, loved Michael Jackson. I had this feeling that anytime I saw something of his that it was just tremendously exciting. I felt there was this special extra energy that wasn’t available anywhere else.”

This draw ultimately led Pun to drop out of piano lessons and pursue the drums. “Once on the drums, I fell in and out of lessons for years,” says Pun. “Then when I was 13, I was at band practice and the guitar player didn’t show up. So I thought, ‘Well, I guess I’ll have to play the guitar.’ And oddly enough, completely unexpectedly, I fell in love.”

Not too long after this garage rehearsal insight, Pun ditched the drum kit and transitioned into guitar studies.“I got really into ’70s funk music,” he says. “I loved The Meters, Funkadelic, stuff like that.”

Pun pursued blues, rock and funk throughout his high school years and, despite an appreciation for the technical acrobatics inherent to the jazz form, he didn’t have an inclination to investigate the style. And it was this lack—i.e. the intention of beefing up that skill set and thereby augmenting his chops—that inspired Pun’s decision to matriculate to the Berklee College of Music.

Despite attending the same school, Pun and Lasko didn’t meet until the final semester of their senior year. “We were both in this really great Theory of Indian Music course,” says Lasko. “I remember Jay asking what I felt were smart questions now and then, but we didn’t really cross paths or have a conversation.”

Photo: Jack Looney
Photo: Jack Looney

That is until, one day, while strolling down a campus hallway, Lasko noticed a flier advertising Pun’s senior recital—an acoustic, fingerstyle rendering of the work of Algerian guitarist Pierre Bensusan. She froze. Stunned, Lasko recalled childhood Sunday mornings, when her father would sit picking obscure tunes by none other than Bensusan. Contributing to the experience’s uncanniness, Pun’s set was to feature a couple of her father’s favorite tunes.

“There was no doubt in my mind about going to watch him play,” says Lasko. “So I went and I was just blown away.”

After the recital the two talked, wound up jamming and became stalwart friends. They were so smitten with one another’s art—musical soulmates—that, upon graduating, they decided to move to Pun’s hometown of Charlottesville.

Once in Charlottesville, as respective masters of the acoustic guitar and violin—er, fiddle—Pun and Lasko capitalized on the well-established singer-songwriter, folk and bluegrass scenes, performing on numerous recordings, filling in at gigs and so on. However, after some years, much session work and a healthy dose of professional disillusionment, around 2005 the two decided to go out on a limb and form their own band.

“We were getting work in the studios and playing in other groups,” says Pun. “But the gigs nearly always entailed some sort of compromise—you had to play what was asked for. Which is rarely what’s interesting or challenging or anything approximating what you’d most like to be playing.”

But when Pun and Lasko sat down and played together? This was another matter entirely. With similar technical backgrounds and capabilities, the two were free to explore, improvise and push one another’s skills to the forefront of their capabilities.

“It was whatever comes out of our fingers,” says Lasko. “We could play a hard-rock song with swing, or transform it into a ballad, or segue it into a jazz standard. It was organic, and it was really, really cool.”

In conversing with the two about music, this connection is immediately observable—it’s almost as if they’re thinking the same thought, as if it wouldn’t matter who spoke, the answer would be the same. Their aesthetic is so intertwined, each is a component of the other.

The origins of this mutual aesthetic—that of MoJa—seems to have become officially solidified in 2009, with the recording of their acclaimed debut album, Chioggia Beat. The album featured 12 “worldly original tunes” and guest appearances by Dave Matthews Band trumpeter Rashawn Ross, local soul-singer extraordinaire Ezra Hamilton and the world-renowned fingerstyle guitarist/vocalist who brought Pun and Lasko together in the first place, Bensusan.

The album’s success led to first one, then a string of European tours, including a visit to play Charlottesville’s Italian sister city, Poggio a Caiano, where the group graced the stage of 2012’s Festival delle Colline Torinesi.

“When we got to see the response our music got in all those different countries, we knew we were on to something,” says Pun. “And we decided we wanted to expand the music, to grow it even more.”

Which brings us just about up-to-date—as it was this decision that provided the impetus for Lasko and Pun to begin studying under the tutelage of Wiggins.

Photo: Courtesy of subject
Photo: Courtesy of subject

“Wiggins kept telling us over and over that ‘greatness is the realization of a tendency,’” says Lasko. “And while recording The Hollow with our quartet”—which includes Pete Spaar on bass and Devonne Harris on drums—“I noticed myself having this tendency to play certain [prefabricated] things, and so I’d try to play something completely different.”

Rather than using the act of becoming aware of a musical tendency as a mechanism for predictability, Lasko sought to untrain her responses, and in the manner of Ezra Pound’s famous imperative, make it new.

“It’s like without really talking about it we decided to constantly take the road of least travel,” says Lasko. “Because of that, we’ve made so many beautiful discoveries about ourselves, which naturally lead to discoveries [and the development] of style.”

And perhaps it is this strategy that gives The Hollow its strange and almost haunting intimacy—unlike the more familiar modality of a singer-songwriter, where introspection and reflection are given verbal treatment, here, in songs that are largely instrumental, those components are hardwired into the compositions, comprising the melodies, harmonies and rhythms.

“With The Hollow we were trying to talk about a kind of emptiness,” says Pun. “We wanted the music to reflect that sad, quiet place you go to as an artist when you are getting ready to write something new. We wanted to capture the sound of creation.”

When talking about the process of creating The Hollow, much in the vein of Rumi reminiscing upon the advisements of his beloved teacher, Shams, Pun and Lasko can wax a bit mystical. That’s why applying the “rite of passage” tag to the album feels justified. Because what Lasko and Pun attempted—and have done—here is something that’s not just tough to do, but extremely rare.

When Shams explains to Rumi that he is “pregnant with a beautiful gift for the world,” what he’s asking Rumi to do is to embrace not just a kind of artistic responsibility, but a process that is continual and recurrent. To give birth requires retreat, pause, gestation—in other words, it requires one to visit what Pun and Lasko have dubbed “the hollow.”

Furthermore, if he is to continue to create masterful works, the artist must go through a similar but different process again and again. In other words, he must become a lifelong student, a devotee to his own artistic process of inspiration and artistic creation. “After seeing firsthand the power of music to connect people of differing races, nationalities, ethnicities and cultural backgrounds, we’re committed to being a part of that process,” says Pun. “We want our music to get better and better. We want it to serve as a bridge.”

Asked what we can expect from MoJa in 10 years, Lasko replies: “I hope to know more than I do now. I will never stop learning and never stop filling the gaps in my knowledge. The only way to grow is to be open to the fact that we have gaps, and to be humbled by that fact. I hope to still be making the music that Jay and I do, and traveling the world to share it with people.”

MoJa will perform songs from The Hollow at the Jefferson African American Heritage Center at an album release party on January 29.

–Eric J. Wallace

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