Jihye Lee: A Name to Watch in Jazz


APRIL / LEE: April Wind. Sewol Ho.* Deep Blue Sea. Whirlwind. Guilty. You Are Here (Every Time I Think of You) / Jihye Lee Big Band: Bijon Watson, Jeff Claassen, Rich Givens, Greg Hopkins, tp; Sean Jones, fl-hn; Jeff Galindo, Rick Stepton, Artie Montenaro, tbn; Peter Cirelli, bs-tbn; Elzbieta Brandys, fl; Shannon LeClaire, a-sax/cl/fl; Rick Di Muzio, t-sax/s-sax/cl; Bob Patton, t-sax/cl; Ben Whiting, bar-sax/bs-cl; Bruce Bartlett, gtr; Alain Mallet, *Jiri Nedoma, pn; John Lockwood, bs; Mark Walker, dm; Ricardo Monzon, perc / Private label, no number, available for sale at http://jihyemusic.com

Jihaye Lee is a Korean-born jazz composer and arranger of original and amazing talents. Some of the music on this album was inspired in part by the tragic sinking of the Korean ferry Sewol in 2014, which Lee watched on television while studying at the Berklee School of Music in Boston. She had already written April Wind and Deep Blue Sea before the tragedy, but afterwards she decided to make them part of a suite in tribute to the lives lost in the accident.

Beyond the inspiration for the works is the actual music, a phenomenal use of a jazz big band in intimate scoring and unusual wind and brass blends, and occasionally, as in the opening track, her own voice as an instrument within the ensemble. Lee’s music, like so much great modern jazz, follows a complex pulse, but what makes it unusual is her long-lined melodies and the unusual timbres used in her scoring. A number of older models went through my mind as I listened to her scores, i.e. Gil Evans, Allyn Ferguson and Toshiko Akiyoshi, even a bit of Paul Lavalle (does anyone out there remember that Lavalle wrote some highly advanced woodwind jazz scores in the early-to-mid 1940s?), but in the end it was Lee’s own unique personality that came through. Her music is characterized by an “open” sound, which in itself makes it different from the sometimes quite complex writing of Lavalle and Akiyoshi, as well as a long view towards the structure of each piece rather than conceiving it in a series of unfolding ensemble and solo statements.

It is music that requires the listener to have an attention span. April Wind, at 11 minutes, unfolds in such a manner that each chorus builds on and adds to the one previous. It is music that hovers around the keys of F and D but never quite arrives there, since the underlying harmony is constantly in flux, shifting with the top line. The solos all seem to be an organic part of the whole.

Likewise, in Sewol Ho, a soft bass opening leads to muted trumpet figures over the piano, with the flutes and clarinets playing above and around them. This is the most obvious of her tributes to the sunken ferry, using cymbal washes to represent the crash of waves against the boat. Despite similarly slow tempos, there is an urgency and sense of danger felt in the music; I found it interesting that Lee very seldom uses saxophones in her ensemble mixtures, preferring to emphasize the higher timbres. After an orchestral “scream” at 4:45, the rhythmic pulse falls away to create a feeling of confusion. Solo trumpet and trombone weave around each other as the rhythm becomes increasingly more agitated, reflecting the sense of confusion and horror as the innocent victims of this tragedy sank to their deaths. Odd clarinet figures are heard next, blending with one of the trumpets to simulate the accident. Eventually the full trumpet section opens up in long lines, followed by a clarinet duo. The other clarinets eventually enter, weaving figures around them, as the music heads towards its conclusion.

Deep Blue Sea starts out with some of the loveliest wind writing I’ve heard in ages: delicate, almost ethereal, with trumpets mixed in for flavor before we hear the rhythm section playing beneath Lee’s wordless voice and one of the reeds. The whole piece opens up like a flower to the morning sun, slowly yet beautifully. After a sunrise of orchestral sound, a lovely tenor solo is heard, after which the brasses come up behind him and open up the volume, eventually dominating the soundscape. This is the most Akiyoshi-like of Lee’s scores on this album.

In Whirlwind, Lee was trying to convey the chaos of the ferry’s sinking and its aftermath. Oddly, the opening beat, though asymmetric, had a certain Latin feel to it, emphasized by what sounded a bit like Latin percussion in the background. Taken strictly as music, this is a powerful yet spacey piece which alternates between soft, almost submissive reeds and loud, aggressive brass, with interludes by piano and tenor sax. The central section of Guilty, on the other hand, centers around a fascinating alto sax and guitar interplay in which the two instruments play off of each other both rhythmically and melodically. Stop-chords by the brass lead into a somewhat aggressive, stomping rhythm with the trumpets and clarinets playing aggressively above it.

You Are Here (Every Time I Think of You) has the most classical-sounding opening, played by the flutes and clarinets, before leading into a tender melody played by Sean Jones on flugelhorn. Indeed, soft winds and flugelhorn tend to dominate this track, meant to depict sympathy for the families of the victims.

Overall, April is a superb debut CD for Lee and her band, and I would surely look forward to hearing her further musical explorations.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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