For Expat Pianist, 3d Saturday Is for all That Jazz"Some people think that music must be a certain way. The truth of the matter is, anything can be music and that's the whole point," said Ronn Branton, a jazz pianist and composer who is touring Seoul. Indeed, Branton is living up to his beliefs: He has been playing everything in a new jazz style. At the performance in March, he arranged the Korean national anthem in a style of jazz that Ray Charles might have played.
Born in Tallahassee, Florida, and now based in New York, Branton graduated from University of Maryland, majoring in composition. Since March, Branton has lived on this side of the Pacific ocean, staging concerts in Seoul every third Saturday under the title "Jazz Is. . ."
Mr. Branton's wife, Kim Hyang-ran, is Korean, and she is a major reason he is in Korea now. Kim is "a genius in making things real," as her husband puts it. Actually, she was the person behind the scenes in bringing the British musical "Phantom of the Opera" to Seoul in December.
At an Italian restaurant, I asked the couple how they met. "It was not love at first sight, which I believe is only a romantic fiction," Branton answered. Kim, a Seoul National University graduate, looked determined and assertive. She has been actively engaged in promoting international artists' concerts in Korea. She got to know Branton on an English pen pal Web site, and after exchanging e-mail for about a year, she flew to New York on a business trip and met Branton in 1996. She said he looked "sharp, but pure and genuine inside." Five months later, it was Branton's turn to fly to Seoul. He not only came, he asked her to marry him.
As a performer and composer, Branton is articulate and sensitive, just like his music. He said, "Getting to know jazz is very challenging; it's like learning how to be creative. I feel like a possessed shaman when performing. Every time I play jazz, I come to have different feelings." He sprinkled provocative thoughts throughout the interview, for example: "Some classical musicians are not knowledgeable compared to jazz musicians."
In the concerts held in Seoul so far, Branton has frequently coupled authentic Korean music and jazz. "Korea has quite a strong musical tradition that is being overlooked. I wanted to show something familiar to my audience using the medium of jazz," Branton said. He then called the Korean jazz scene "almost barren," but showing signs of budding. "In the United States, jazz education, like pedagogical methods, is so sophisticated. There are already Korean jazz musicians who have fine artistic concepts, although they need some polishing."
His ultimate goal is to be like John Lennon, a "surrealistic composer who was also emotionally honest." Recently, Branton also participated in the production of the album titled "Between the Notes" by soprano Kim Won-jung, the singer who starred in the musical "The Last Empress."
He is also tenacious about things other than his music, especially when it comes to environmental issues in Korea. "I'm hoping to change the theme of my concert to 'the environment' someday." Also, he seemed quite concerned about the rising number of Koreans who smoke.
He performs only on the third Saturday of the month because, he said, "If a musician performs too much, it lessens the value of the music." The next concert will be on Sept 15 at Panart Hall.
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by Chun Su-jin