Jazzed up: Musicians descend on Jarasum
By the end of a conversation, you almost get a sense of what he means when he compares the sound of jazz to “melting butter.”
Maybe that’s his reason for referring to the musical style of his band, Moida, as “urban jazz pop” ― a genre he defines as a mix of pop with standard jazz ― instead of simply “jazz.”
The word “jazz” is still a genre of music that Koreans think is nourished by a privileged few, notably yuppies who can afford to go to jazz bars to smoke Cuban cigars after work. Jazz is also one of the most American genres of Western music.
Yet more and more Koreans seem to discovering the charm of jazz. The number of jazz clubs is expanding ― in Seoul alone, there are more than ten jazz clubs focusing on live jazz and blues. There are also more and larger jazz festivals, such as the Jarasum International Jazz Festival, which has artists from around the world and is already celebrating its third year.
The growing strength of the jazz scene has also helped foster young Korean jazz musicians such as Nah Yun-seon, who has begun to perform overseas. Music critics here often remark on the similarities between jazz and pansori, a traditional Korean vocal genre, notably their free rhythmic patterns. “The best thing about fusion jazz is that we can bring out various mix of elements we are attracted to,” says Mr. Lee, the group’s leader who started playing saxophone at the age of 19 ― a decision he jokes he had made “just to find an instrument where you could stand at the front row of the stage.”
(He’s not the only attention-seeker. Choi Hun, the group’s bassist, admits that the moment he decided to become a bassist was when girls screamed at a guitarist of his high school’s rock band who played Kenny Rogers’ “You are so beautiful” in a school festival.)
“There is pleasure in the process of putting together the scores we’ve imagined in our head into a real song. You can never predict what we’ll end up with until the result comes out,” Mr. Lee added.
In jazz, harmonies can change depending on the band leader’s mood; the leader can set the tempo by snapping his or her fingers. The casual approach jazz musicians take is leaps and bounds away from the rigid style of traditional Korean music, which stresses extravagant rituals and formalism.
Recently the band members of Moida were joined in All That Jazz, an Itaewon jazz club where Moida regularly performs, by their friend Woong San, a jazz singer who just finished a three-day concert series in Seoul.
“There was a whole evolution of a jazz scene in Korea that people are not aware of,” says Woong San, who has performed in Japan and at the Copenhagen Jazz Festival in Denmark. “There was a big jazz boom in the ’70s before folk became trendy. Then it was washed out by the rock scene. Then around the mid ’90s, a whole group of jazz vocalists came out on the pop scene.”
That’s also when Woong San decided to convert from a vocalist of a heavy metal rock band to a jazz singer. She was in her early 20s then, ignorant about jazz.
“I was listening to Billie Holiday’s ‘I’m a Fool to Want You’ one day, and decided that I wanted to sing the song like her,” she recalls. “I must have really thought that I was good when I first started.”
Her repertoire is vast, ranging from softer rhythms of “jazz ballads” to ones that are more dynamic and aggressive. Critics raved over Korea’s new jazz star when she released her first album, “Love Letters,” in 2003. The fact that she can compose songs remarkably quickly doesn’t hurt her career, either.
When she wrote “Call Me,” a song on her last album, she merely hummed it while she was driving, and later patched together a few lines. She arrived home, wrote down the lyrics in less than 15 minutes.
“The music and lyrics came to me almost simultaneously,” she says. “I guess I am a type of a musician who sings what I want to say.”
Moida, on the other hand, sets the band’s style toward “easy listening” jazz. Their first album, which was released in February, had a strong texture of pop mixed with soft jazz, something like the mellow name of “Chocolate Drive,” an original track from their album.
“It’s good, because we are influenced by different styles and we can bring different colors to the band,” says Mr. Lee. “We work separately as instrumentalists. But we come together to create our own sound.”
Currently the group comprises five men: Choi Hun plays bass; Ahn Byeong-beom plays the drums; Park Gyeong-ho on the guitar; Kim Jong-ik on the keyboard; Lee is the saxophonist and there is a guest vocalist who occasionally pitches in.
“We are seeking ways to tune the sounds of jazz to meet the style of Korean music,” Mr. Lee says. “That’s the ultimate task for many jazz musicians in Korea.”
Want to hear some jazz?
The organizers of Jarasum International Jazz Festival have been there, done that.
In the first year, it rained so hard before the festival that the island of Jarasum almost flooded. It rained again the second year. For their third year, the festival organizers decided to sit back and let nature do its worst ― which is more in tune with the sentiment of jazz.
Whatever the weather, there’s still an eye-popping line-up of international musicians wanting to play at the festival.
On Saturday at 3 p.m., Bill Evans will hold a saxophone workshop at the jazz center. The Erik Truffaz Group, which is considered among the leaders of the new French jazz movement (Eric Truffaz, the band leader and trumpeter, released his first album on the Blue Note label in 1996), will perform on Sunday at the KTF jazz stage.
A fusion jazz group led by Joe Zawinul, who composed music for and played the electric piano for “In a Silent Way,” the experimental fusion album by Miles Davis, will also perform on the KTF jazz stage on Sunday. On Saturday, Stefano Bollani, one of the hottest Italian jazz pianists, is playing with his trio (himself, a bassist and a drummer); Marceo Parker, whose music is often called 98 percent jazz, 2 percent punk, offers bites from his latest album “School’s In.”
A series of talented Korean musicians and D.J.s are also filling up the program.
On Saturday at the KTF party stage, Han Sang-won Band, led by a veteran guitarist, who is known for mixing punk and blues with jazz, will perform; Windy City, led by a former leader of Asoto Union, will dish up its mix of punk and soul on Saturday.
As a notable appearance, Saharaja, which consists of musicians from Bali, creates exotic sounds by using such instruments as the electric violin, flamenco guitar and trumpet, offering a glimpse into jazz trends from Indonesia.
Jarasum International Jazz Festival runs through Sept. 24 in Gapyeong County, Gyeonggi Province. To get to the festival take a train to Gapyeong from Cheongnyanggni Station or a bus from the East Seoul Bus Terminal. A shuttle bus runs from Gapyeong Bus Terminal to the festival site from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Those who take trains can walk to the terminal from the train station in about three minutes. Admission to the festival costs 10,000 won ($10.50) a day, 18,000 won for two days and 25,000 won three days. For more information, call (031) 581-2813.
by Park Soo-mee