Sukyung Kim on Lilac Hill

Lilac Hill cover

LILAC HILL / KIM: Lilac Hill. Stargazers. Bluebird. Summer Days. California / Sukyung Kim, pno; Ethan Helm, a-sax; Paul JuBong Lee, gt; Luca Alemanno, bs; Jongkuk Kim, dm / self-produced CD, available at Amazon

Sukyung Kim is a Korean-born pianist who now lives and works in Brooklyn. She began her classical studies at age four, later moving to New York to major in Piano Performance at SUNY Binghamton. After learning an extensive classical repertoire, she wanted to learn more about jazz and composition, so she moved to New York City to be involved in the jazz scene. In 2017 she began a Master’s program in Jazz Performance at NYU, with Alan Broadbent, Drew Gress, Kevin Hays and Alex Sipiagin being among her mentors, This is her debut release.

The opening track, Lilac Hill, is not what you might think it would sound. It is a fairly upbeat number with an irregular meter, the melodic line (pleasant but not memorable) played by alto saxist Ethan Helm while Kim and bassist Luca Alemanno play rhythmic counterpoint. Kim is the first soloist up; she swings gently and has some very fine ideas, weaving the melody line into her improvisation before taking off in the second chorus, using short syncopated motifs to build her solo. I was very happy to hear that guitarist Paul JuBong Lee plays real jazz guitar and not rock guitar; as he solos, the rhythm section builds to a tremendous crescendo behind him, then Lee and Helm engage in a chase chorus before returning to the melody line for the rideout.

Stargazers is a ballad, played in a wistful fashion by the pianist with light bass and drum interjections; there’s a hint of Night and Day to the B theme as the tempo increases, the bass gently but firmly pushes the rhythm and Helm comes in with his solo. Indeed, I would say that it is specifically in her use of rhythm that Kim is most original; the bouncing bass and drum patterns that seem to go against the grain of the beat are what arrests one’s attention and holds it there. Kim’s solo on this track is good but not particularly exceptional; she sounds like any number of good pianists working nowadays, which is to her credit considering her classical background, but not really individual in style. Lee gets a solo of his own here as the rhythm suddenly straightens out behind him, projecting a straight 4 in the first chorus before returning to the irregular meter of the beginning, then back again to 4. This is a perfect example of what I mean about Kim’s compositions being more interesting for their rhythmic treatment than their treatment of theme. My impression of Helm, however, is that he is a skilled but not terribly interesting soloist. I’ve heard so many alto saxists like him in my time that, although I admire his professionalism, there’s not much to say about his improvisations.

In Bluebird, we start out with an almost samba-type beat, the opening melody played by Helm with the rhythm section. Kim’s little piano fills are tasteful and at times propulsive as she switches from single notes to chords, pushing the beat a bit, and her solo here is really excellent. She plays in single-note lines with a firm grasp of structure; she knows where she is going and how to get there, tossing in some sparkling keyboard runs towards the end. Helm also sounds a bit better than average here, showing off his affection for Paul Desmond by including some of the late altoist’s favorite licks and turnarounds in his solo. By and large, I found this track to be one of the most tightly structured compositions on the CD; it “plays” well from beginning to end.

Summer Days opens with a repeated series of Fs played by the guitar, leading one to think that they might be going into Night and Day. Instead, we get yet another Latin-tinged piece, in fact here sounding so much like the Latin jazz of the early 1960s that I was somewhat taken aback. Helm’s solo is better than good here’ it’s excellent, channeling a bit of Stan Getz as well as a little of John Handy. Kim is also quite good here, and drummer Jongkuk Kim finally gets the chance to play an excellent solo.

This relatively short set concludes with California, a jazz waltz on which Kim switches to electric piano, and as a surprise it is bassist Alemanno who carries the opening theme as Jongkuk plays soft brushes behind him. After another theme statement by Helm, Alemanno finally gets a solo to himself, and it is superb, finding interesting interstices in the tune’s structure and taking advantage of them in a well-conceived, surprising solo. Kim’s solo is good but rather laid-back in the first chorus; in the second, she gets more interesting and inventive, leading into Helm’s return on alto as the tempo suddenly seems to shift from a laid-back 3 to a 4 overlaid on 6/8. A nice touch! Alemanno then returns for another chorus as we return to 3/4, followed in turn by Lee who, alas, indulges in some rock-like playing.

Lilac Hill is by no means a tentative outing for Kim, despite its being her debut release, but I still sense room for her to grow. She already has a firm grasp of jazz structure and, more importantly, knows how to assign parts to her sidemen that enhance the whole, but I think she has even larger and more complex compositions in her. I hope she can bring them to fruition someday!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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