Angela Allen

Hard to say who or what was the biggest attraction at the “Mount Immigration” concert Aug. 20 on top of Mount Tabor.

The newly minted and released mobile SoundsTruck NW, multi-instrumentalist/vocalist/composer/storyteller Joe Kye, or Illegal Son? Throw into the winning and informal mix of attractions the summit of Portland’s magnificent Mount Tabor with its wide city view. With families, couples, dogs, babies and bikers hanging out on the ground at the free concert, the summit was an ideal site for the SoundsTruck NW. Since the beginning of its inaugural season this summer, the nifty compact mobile stage has been moving agilely around Portland from place to place, hosting multi-genre concerts.

And then there was Joe Kye. As 2023 Oregon Arts Commission Fellow, Kye is known for his witty remarks and stories as well as his musical gift and community involvement. Onstage with his electric violin in hand, he said in his wry way, “Places complain about getting audiences in the door. How about no doors?”

Certainly the SoundsTruck NW is designed to fit into almost any drivable place with its doorless state-of-the-art mobile stage and its rechargeable solar electric power. Founded by Yoko and John Greeney, its mission in part is to seek out underserved areas to give more and more people access to music. Yoko Greeney is a concert pianist, and she and flutist Amelia Lukas (read ArtsWatch’s recent profile here) curate the concerts. Their musical choices range from genre (classical, jazz, folk, etc.) to genre-less, the latter of which the Mount Immigration concert exemplified.

Partly sponsored by IRCO (Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization) and Montavilla Jazz, the concert focused on two immigrants. Kye, 36, is a Korean immigrant who has been in the Northwest since he was 6 years old. Denzel Mendoza of Illegal Son has lived in the United States since childhood as well, but due to bizarre circumstances that involved his dad moving back to Singapore (Mendoza is Filipino), he has been undocumented for years despite his many struggles to gain “legitimacy.” His life – and his music – he says, are all about improvisation.

With his trombone in hand and bassist Matthew Holmes at his side, Mendoza makes up songs as he goes along, and you’ve probably never heard the exact tunes, or their constructs. His last piece, written in reaction to Trump’s inauguration and anti-immigrant stance, was a stunner. Mendoza has had one semester of formal music education at the New School in New York City, yet he’s made his trombone front and center rather than a sideman’s instrument.

Kye, who has a reputation as a multi-pronged highly original musician who doesn’t slip easily into any musical genre, starred as concertmaster of his award-winning Garfield HIgh School orchestra in Seattle. Years later he opened for Yo-Yo Ma, and in 2022, the year of the tiger, he launched the Tiger Tiger PDX Fest that featured Asian-American, Pacific Islander and native Hawaiian musicians. The festival continued in July this year.

But those things took a while to achieve.

“Being the son of low-income immigrants, a career in music was never on the table,“ Kye said in a post-show email. “I felt immense pressure to support my family, which meant that the arts were solely hobbies. It didn’t help that the only Asian-American role models I had were people like Sarah Chang and Midori. And I had no intention of practicing Beethoven 10 hours a day to get into Juilliard.”

In college at Yale, he learned to improvise and loop, which he describes as repeating sounds on a device, and layering them or un-layering them – “kind of like composing on the fly.” He studied liberal arts, left classical music behind, and began discovering his voice. After graduation, he taught high school English, left after four years, and said he gave himself “permission to pursue a career in music.”

He’s 36 now, married, a father of two kids, and has earned a number of awards and substantial recognition in the music world. He blends indie-rock, electro-pop and jazz with looping and digital effects in his music, influenced at various times, he says, by Stevie Wonder, Andrew Bird, Maurice Ravel, Sufjan Stevens and Kamasi Washington. In addition to, and embedded in his performances, he works hard to help immigrants with difficulties and dilemmas in these divisive times.

Though he didn’t sing on Mt. Tabor (he is reputed to have a “song-bird sweet voice” by PopMatters), he did a lot of looping. One piece flowed into another. He didn’t mention song titles during his 45 onstage minutes, though he did remind the audience that “everything is new and beautiful.” Performing an all-improv show is uncommon for him, he said in his email.

“Usually I’m playing pretty standard structures with lyrics. There may be an improvisational violin or a looping sequence thrown in, but this time, the songs had no titles. They were completely improvised. Cory (drummer Cory Limuaco) was a collaborator. We were constantly listening to each other, conversing and creating in tandem.”

And so it went that Sunday: On-the-go improv can leave audiences soundstruck, thanks in part this time, to the handy little SoundsTruck NW.