Caroline Chung calls her band Citizens Jazz, which is a fitting moniker for a community of musicians drawing on an international array of Afrocentric rhythms. The aesthetic is democratic, but make no mistake; the Oakland bassist, composer, producer, and rainmaker Chung is firmly in command of this bandwagon.
A force on the Bay Area music scene for two decades, Chung is releasing “Sounds Of Haejin” on March 31. This is her first album under her own name and it’s a song-driven project that features some of the most interesting vocalists in the Bay Area, including Lilan Kane, Amy Dabalos, Miriam Speyer, and Chung herself.
Haejin is Chung’s Korean name, and the album reveals several facets of an artist who can’t be defined or contained by any one style or tradition.
“I just love so many different kinds of music,” said Chung, who grew up in Jacksonville, Florida. “I want to put music out there that people connect with, that inspires them in some way. A lot of new stuff was written in these weird, dark times, incorporating a lot of positive messages.”
Largely composed and entirely recorded during the pandemic, the album grew out of a handful of songs Chung released briefly last year on an EP. She produced that project with Oakland guitarist Khalil Doak-Anthony, a close collaborator since the late 1990s. When the pandemic shut everything down, she set about reworking the material, while adding a batch of new pieces.
Some tracks emerged in response to the summer’s Black Lives Matter upsurge, like a sleek arrangement of Bob Marley’s “Burning and Looting” and her original “Killer Cops,” a more-in-sadness-than-anger protest song featuring the coiled violin of Classical Revolution’s Charith Premawardhana. As an artist who believes deeply in the healing power of sonic vibrations, Chung crafted a series of uplifting, cool-toned anthems, like “Let Freedom Ring” with incantatory vocals by Lil Flower Nasti (AKA videographer Sarah Beth Arnold).
The album opens with an ode to the power of sunshine, “Vitamin D,” featuring vocals by Oakland-reared Taqwa Leilani Adesanya and a rhythmically adroit spoken word interlude by Tongo Eisen-Martin, a leading activist fighting mass incarceration who is San Francisco’s 8th poet laureate. While the music draws on a panoply of grooves the album always feels cohesive, a testament to Chung’s production savvy and her expert cast of collaborators.
In addition to Doak-Anthony, the primary contributors include guitarist Andre Mateo, keyboardist Javier Santiago, drummer Brandon Farmer, saxophonist Danny Brown, and trumpeter Natalie John. In many ways, “Sounds Of Haejin” reflects Chung’s ethic as a bandleader who wants to open doors for her peers.
On a scene where it’s all too common to find all-male and all-white ensembles, Doak-Anthonyhas observed that Chung is always looking “to hire people of color and women, trying to help people who deserve it,” he said. “She does go out of her way to try to make it diverse. She can do that because she’s one of those people who gets the gig and makes things happen. She’s driven in that way. Some of us are not so much like that.”
She’s not just looking out for fellow musicians on the bandstand. A few weeks ago she organized a protest outside of Spotify’s San Francisco office, rallying players with their instruments to denounce the paltry fees the company pays to artists for each time a song is streamed.
“Sounds Of Haejin” might be Chung’s first album under her own name, but she’s more than paid her dues in the music industry. She first gained notice as a bandleader with the neo-Tropicalia combo Superbacana, which she co-led with Doak-Anthony. The band worked around the region and gained visibility when Ubiquity Records included their song “Reza” on the 2003 compilation “Rewind!2.” In 2005, Newhouse Records included two Superbacana tracks on the compilation “San Francisco Under a Groove.”
Chung launched Citizens Jazz around 2010 when she returned to the Bay Area after a two-year stint in New York City, using it as an umbrella to cover an evolving crew of players she hired for gigs. She’s played standards, Latin funk, soul, blues and Brazilian music at restaurants, cafes and nightspots around the region. Her most gratifying gigs have been at the Mission District’s Red Poppy Art House, a storefront performance space that attracts highly attentive audiences.
Always ready to jump into an interesting situation, Chung anchored some major concerts with Sang Matiz when the Bay Area Afro-Latin funk combo opened for the Cuban all-star Buena Vista Social Club Orchestra during their 2015 farewell tour. She might enjoy the sidewoman assignments, but Chung doesn’t sit around waiting for the next text.
“I’ve always felt like I was kind of on my own,” she said. “I appreciate and play a lot of Black music. Being a woman in this music you’re not hired as much or seen as much, so at the very beginning I realized I needed to be getting my own gigs, starting my own bands.”