Jungsu Choi, Jazz Composer

Tiny Orkester

TSCUSS JAZZ ERA / CHOI: Stolen Yellow.* PARKER-CHOI: Anthropology. CHOI: Nach Wien 224.1,2 STRAYHORN-CHOI: What if Ellington Didn’t Take the “A” Train?3 COREA-CHOI: Spain3 /Jungsu Choi Tiny Orkester: Yejung Kim, tpt; Junyeon Lee, tb; Eunmi Kim, fl; Minkyu Cha, a-sax; Sungil Bae, t-sax; Sehwa Kang, cello; Jungmin Lee, pn; Sungyun Hong, gtr; Joseph Han, bs; Hyunsu Lee, dm; 1Jungsu Choi, 2Jinho Pyo, 3Sehyun Baik, voc / Challenge Records CR73451

This album is proof positive of what I’ve been saying in my reviews for the past 17 years, ever since Clare Fischer went into semi-retirement due to failing health and Toshiko Akiyoshi finally gave up her great jazz orchestra, that to be great in the jazz world doesn’t just mean writing cool, swinging charts for a standard 16-piece big band in a generic style. You need to think outside the box, not only in your creation of the music but in your scoring, and a lot can be done with only nine or ten musicians. George Russell did it for years. So did Charles Mingus and Rod Levitt. Thinking outside the box means coming up with your own timbral blends, scores that don’t just sound like everyone else’s. Daniel Schnyder, Dmitri Tymoczko and a few others have done this in their jazz-classical hybrids, and this is what Jungsu Choi has done here.

Choi’s brief but intense liner notes give you an idea of how much this music means to him. “Writing music is one of the most painful things I do,” he says. “Sometimes it takes more than a week to fill a single measure, which is a difficult and lonely time…in the majority of cases, this first idea is not the right one and instead is thrown out because it might be a cliché, old fashioned or simply too plain. For me, writing a piece of music is a laborious series of choices and throwing ideas away again and again.”

It took Choi three years to write the five pieces you hear in this album, three of which are actually rewritings of others’ work. What if Ellington Didn’t Take the “A” Train? is erroneously attributed on the inlay and booklet to Duke Ellington instead of the song’s composer, Billy Strayhorn, but that is the only mistake you will see or hear in this impeccably written and arranged series of pieces.

Stolen Yellow is not, as some of us in the West may assume, a mistaken combination of English words (as the Japanese sometimes do for their “Japlish”), but a tribute to a former President of South Korea whose name was Yellow. The opening line is simply astounding: complex, bitonal and striking, with Choi’s wordless vocal woven into the ensemble. The piece then reaches a section where repeated low As on the piano play an ostinato rhythm beneath an excellent trumpet solo by Yejung Kim, after which altoist Minkyu Cha interweaves lines with him. Following this is a squealing solo by what sounds to me like tenor player Sungil Bae in overdrive, pushing the upper limits of his instrument to sound almost like a soprano sax. Eventually tonality takes over, but the complex, interwoven lines are, as Choi points out, devoid of cliché or predictability. The rhythm within each bar is shifted rhythmically in such a way that the tune seems to be contracting rather than expanding. The heightened tension is such that the piece seems to not be very long at all, whereas in fact it runs for eight minutes.

Choi’s arrangement of Anthropology is also stunning and creative. You recognize the melody, but only in bits and pieces; the harmony is completely rewritten, and the music sounds like an entirely new piece using Anthropology as a thread that runs through this new piece. And, like Rod Levitt, Choi is able to make his tentette sound like a big band. At one point, tenor saxist Bae (now sounding more like a traditional tenor) plays a rhythmic solo while flautist Eunmi Kim plays Parker’s melody above him in counterpoint, following which he goes off on a solo of his own, still in counterpoint, now with Bae expanding on his solo. This is clearly great music. The ensemble finale is also full of contrapuntal effects.

With Nach Wien 224, we finally get a respite from the manic uptempo of the first two numbers. This begins with the piano playing in a ruminative manner, with cymbal washes and a guitar entering (in its low range) with Choi humming along. Then the melody comes in, quickly leading to a passage played by cello and flute, eventually followed by a complex ensemble playing in counterpoint, following which we reach a moment of quietude with Jinho Pyo singing a vocal over the rhythm section. To re-use an old cliché, you can’t take your ears off this music. It keeps you engrossed because it is always moving, developing, shifting and morphing. There’s also a passage where Choi and Pyo duet in counterpoint.

What if Ellington Didn’t Take the “A” Train? begins with low-register growling (trombone, possibly) before moving into Strayhorn’s tune, again contracted and rewritten in the manner of Anthropology. Certain notes are omitted, others truncated in length, before it moves into a really swinging passage propelled by Joseph Han’s bass. The tempo is then cut in half for an excellent trombone solo by Junyeong Lee, sounding not too dissimilar from Jimmy Knepper (yes, that is a compliment; Knepper is, in my view, somewhat neglected today as one of the greatest and most original jazz trombonists in history). Another ensemble passage, again truncating the melody further, leads to a rock-influenced guitar solo; this was, for me, the least pleasant moment on this disc (I DETEST rock guitars in jazz). Another ensemble takes Choi’s rewritten Train into an entirely new station, in a new musical universe, before a brief restatement of the melody and then a complex rideout.

Chick Corea’s Spain, already a fairly complex piece, is made more so in Choi’s rearrangement. This one also has a nice, relaxed piano solo in it, as well as a tenor sax/vocal duo-improvisation (Sehyun Baik is the singer here) that suddenly crashes into the finale.

This is not just a good disc. This is a stupendous disc. His record label is aptly named: Challenge. Indeed, I was so impressed by it that I asked Mr. Choi if he would do a short email interview with me, and he agreed. Here it is:

Art Music Lounge: Thank you for granting me this interview! I must say, I was completely taken aback by your compositions and rearrangements. They’re so completely original and, better yet, inventive, that I couldn’t stop listening. I suppose my first question would be, who are the composers and arrangers who have influenced you the most?

Jungsu Choi: Actually, there are so many things that have influenced my music. As I wrote in the liner note on my album, my music comes from something inherent: mine were inside me for a long time, put there by something I saw, read or heard…

it’s not only from music but also from many others. However if I should say only one of them, I would have to say “Mathias Ruegg” – the leader and composer of Vienna Art Orchestra. His music was a trigger that made me decide to tailor to big band music. It was in 1999. At that moment when I listened to the music, I was really shocked and speaking in my mind, “this is the music that I’ve wanted and will do.”  His music is full of many fresh musical ideas and super structured arrangements.

AML: I read your comments on how long it takes you to write and arrange your music, and I can completely understand that since you are obviously very serious about your work. But I’m curious: when you come up with the right way to proceed, is it always the result of long meditation? Or does the next step sometimes occur to you in a flash of inspiration?

JC: Yes, I write music both ways. Usually I consider deeply how to fill out the measures of my scores. Even when I come up some of good flash ideas, I don’t really use them as it is. In other words, it takes some time for me to complete music I want and intend even when I use flash ideas.

AML: The late jazz composer Alonzo Levister, who wrote the jazz ballet Manhattan Monodrama back in the 1950s, one told me that, for him, the opening of a piece is of vital importance, because without a somewhat suspenseful or dramatic opening, you may not hold your listeners. How do you feel about this?

JC:  Absolutely, I agree with that. Of course, the opening of a piece should excite the listeners’ curiosity about how the music goes. But it doesn’t mean that it has to be a big dramatic musical device or something strong that surprises listeners. Sometimes even only a few notes played by a single instrument is enough to hold listeners’ attention.

AML: Another thing that impressed me about your scores is the fact that, despite their melodic and harmonic complexity, they had a good flow…the music moves in what seems like a logical progression, no matter how dense it is. Do you think of this linear “flow” when you are trying to come up with a bar or two?

JC:  Usually, when I compose or arrange, the general flow of the melody and bass line comes first. There are so many diverse ways to develop compositional ideas. One of them I use is firstly to assemble the top line and bottom line, and then choosing harmonic devices and density are next. In terms of melodic devices, I’ve been hugely inspired by Nicolas Slonimsky’s theory on the ways to handle melodies.

AML: I would guess that, because you work slowly, it is difficult for you to write music on commission. Is this so?

JC: The ways I compose are absolutely different between doing commissioned works and doing my own. Actually, I have done many commissioned works in diverse areas such as for film, modern dance, orchestra and so on. But that is not “ART.”  On the commission works, the point is to produce not that I want but what the commissioner wants. In addition, the deadline makes it possible for me to be completed on time. On such kind of works, the important things are techniques and experiences. However on doing my own works, other things are added, which are “thinking, philosophy and experiments.” This is the reason why I’m slow doing my own works that is art!

AML: I couldn’t quite determine if the opening growls on What if Ellington Didn’t Take the “A” Train? were played by trombones or not. Is that what they were?

JC: It’s not trombone but guitar effector’s sound. On the intro of the piece, I ask guitarist Hong to play a sonic improvisation using diverse effector that suggests departure of the “A “Train.

AML: It seemed to me that you think a great deal about orchestral texture as well as the musical line and the underlying harmony when writing your music. I’m curious if you’ve ever studied the scoring of such iconoclastic jazz writers as Eddie Sauter, Charles Mingus or Rod Levitt, who were also adept at creating unusual textures from just a few instruments?

JC: Not really. Actually, this is the first time I’ve used that kind of instrumental combination. The composers you mentioned were great masters, but in studying music I’ve focused more on harmonic devices and structures from diverse composers. I think each instruments combination has its own unique magnetism no matter their size. I’m deeply interested in composing unusual instrumental combinations and am going to keep experimenting with it.

AML: Were these scores written for the 10-piece combination heard on this record, or were these reductions of fuller scores, for instance using the usual complement of 3-4 trumpets and 3 trombones?

JC:  You have a point. From the start, some of them were written in mind for standard big band ensemble (4,4,5), for instance What if Ellington…. However, to be honest, a limited budget was an issue for me, so I decided to downsize the band and re-write the scores for the 11 piece band (trp, trb, alto sax, tenor sax, flute, cello, male voice, guitar, piano, bass, drums). In such small-sized big band writing, I tried to extract a rich sound as much as possible using contrapuntal devices rather than simple punch tutti horn voicing.

AML: Thank you for your time! I’m sure that my readers will appreciate your insights.

JC: Thank you for your interest in my music!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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