Hyeseon Hong’s “Ee-Ya-Gi” a Strange But Fascinating CD

Hong front cover

EE-YA-GI / HONG: Harvest Dance. Friends or Lovers. Para Mi Amigo Distante. Boat Song. Disappearing Into Foam (Little Mermaid). Trash Digging Queen. First Love Song / Hyeseon Hong, leader/arr; Ben Kono, a-sax/s-sax/fl; Matt Vashlishan, a-sax/EWI/fl; Rich Perry, t-sax; Jeremy Powell, t-sax/cl; Andrew Hadro, bar-sax/bs-cl; Augie Haas, Ingrid Jensen, Jason Wiseman, Colin Brigstocke, tpt; Ron Wilkens, Daniel Linden, Ric Becker, Becca Patterson, tbn; Matt Panayides, gtr; Broc Hempel, pn; John Lenis, bs; Mark Ferber, dm; EJ Park, Subin Park, voc / MAMA Records M1053

My first reaction to the opening of Harvest Dance, the first track on this CD, was amusement bordering on laughter. There was just something so quaint about the see-saw sound of the ricky-tick flute tune that it put me in mind of those old 1940s and ‘50s movies where music like this always played in the background when someone was pulling a rickshaw. But within a few bars the big band came in, the music changed in rhythm and feeling, and things became more interesting.

Korean arranger-composer Hyeseon Hong, whose debut CD this is, has been living in New York for several years. The publicity blurb accompanying this disc explains that she “blends elements of classical music and modern jazz big band, and Korean traditional music.” You might want to think of her, then, as a sort of Korean Toshiko Akiyoshi, and like Akiyoshi she sticks to the progressive swing/bop axis in her compositions and mixes her ethnic culture into the tunes she writes. What impressed me the most, however, were the solos, all of which are ear-opening and highly creative, taking Hong’s basic concepts and making them fly. In the opening tune, I was most taken by a trombonist, who I assume is Ron Wilkens, and a trumpeter who may be Ingrid Jensen. It’s really a shame that the promo material doesn’t list any of the soloists by name.

Friends or Lovers starts out with a grumbling sound before moving into a polyphonic passage played by the saxes, over which Hong overlays trumpet figures in the second 8. This, in turn, leads to a catchy riff tune bounced around the ensemble. After a nice alto solo (possibly Ben Kono), we get a fairly routine spot by guitarist Matt Panayides that relies on blues licks. Fortunately, an inventive solo by Matt Vashlishan on Electronic Wind Instrument, which is then followed by swirling sax figures interspersed by biting trumpets. The instrumental voicings are not particularly striking in texture, but Hong makes them work by mixing and matching different rhythmic cells in ingenious ways.

Para Mi Amigo Distante is a ballad that opens with Ben Kono on soprano sax over the acoustic guitar of Panayides; the tempo picks up a bit when the full ensemble enters. One of Hong’s ensemble touches is to include the wordless vocals of EJ Park and Subin Park on certain choruses, which adds another dimension to the writing. Kono returns for an extended soprano solo of wonderful invention, occasionally going outside the changes and flying in the upper range of his instrument swirling sixteenths. Either Rich Perry or Jeremy Powell follows with a fine chorus on tenor sax; towards the end, the wordless voice rides above the ensemble before the brass comes back for an ensemble chorus of their own. The various sections mix and match in this way through to the end.

Boat Song opens with a prominent vocal, with words, by Subin Park in Korean, a cappella, before moving into interesting high wind passages with soft brass interjections. Park then returns for another vocal, accompanied by the orchestra. This is one of the more interesting pieces in terms of orchestral texture, borrowing some idea from the Gil Evans book. There’s a nice alto solo, relaxed and imaginative, that builds in intensity until Park and the full ensemble comes in behind him, eventually winding down to allow the singer to finish the song in a long, slow diminuendo.

Interestingly, Disappearing Into Foam, subtitled Little Mermaid, starts with both singers intertwining their voices in an a cappella passage, after which Broc Hempel’s piano leads us into the main theme. This is a jazz waltz, and a very charming one at that, with the instrumental voicings favoring the high instruments (flute, clarinet, soprano sax) and the melodic line wafting along gracefully in C minor. Hempel returns for an excellent extended solo. Following this, the ensemble returns for a melody that sounded to me like a variant on Chim Chim Cheree, though it then extends itself to include some exciting open trumpets. Hempel comes back one more time to ride things out.

Trash Digging Queen is surely the oddest and, to me, most intriguing tune on the album, starting with a military-style drumbeat and moving into a quirky, jagged melody that sounds half Korean and half jazz. This is almost on the level of the kind of quirky pieces that trombonist-arranger Rod Levitt wrote for his vastly underrated band back in the mid-1960s. Jensen plays a relaxed yet inventive trumpet solo over the churning rhythm section. Andrew Hadro plays a blistering solo on baritone sax, followed by one of the tenors in a cooler mode. The quirky, choppy outro is very amusing.

The disc ends with First Love Song, another ballad, also introduced by Hempel on piano. the melody is a bit vague, however, and not easy to grasp, although the band plays it beautifully. A trumpet solo rides above the ensemble with great invention, reinvigorating the music. It’s a nice ending to a fine album.

Recommended for Hong’s nice tune construction, the ensemble playing and the outstanding solos!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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