Near East Quartet
Sungjae Son tenor saxophone, bass clarinet
Suwuk Chung guitar
Yulhee Kim vocal, percussion
Soojin Suh drums
Sori Choi traditional Korean percussion on “Baram”
Recorded December 2016, Stradeum Studio, Seoul
Engineer: Rick Kwan
Mixed by Nicolas Baillard, Manfred Eicher, and Sun Chung at Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Produced by Sun Chung
Release date: August 31, 2018
Saxophonist/composer/bandleader Sungjae Son and his Near East Quartet splash into ECM territory with this phenomenal debut. Joined by guitarist Suwuk Chung, singer-percussionist Yulhee Kim, and drummer Soojin Suh, he charts new paths along old maps, bringing traditional Korean music, or gugak, into the stratosphere of improvisation. It’s a unique concept not explored on the label since Then Comes the White Tiger, but with a freshness all its own. The concept is in the name, which came at the suggestion of Chung. In the guitarist’s words: “We’re all born and raised in an Eastern country, but our identity is very much Westernized. Not by choice of our own, but of the world that made us. So we can’t really say our music is from the ‘East.’ Rather, it feels like we’re standing somewhere near it.” This push and pull of identity politics is expressly felt in the set’s two Korean folk songs. Where “Mot” zooms in like a cinematic close-up on a young woman picking lotus seeds, the seafaring “Pa:do” evokes the undulation of waves, both literal and figurative. Son’s bass clarinet in the former moves full dark over desolate landscape while Suh’s drums in the latter illuminate details where few others would find purchase. The ability of both to embody what they articulate is marvellous.
In response to the question of combining traditional Korean music and jazz, Son tells me by email that for him jazz “is all about different cultures meeting together from the start. It’s only natural for me to bring something from my own cultural background into jazz that I love. East and West share the beauty of sound and the beauty of silence. As for what makes Korean traditional music distinct, I can only say that it embraces empty space instead of filling it in.” And embrace it they certainly do in “Ewha.” This opening track is a portal of welcome into a sound-world that’s equally physical and immaterial. Its mood is so initiatory that it’s all one can do to close one’s eyes against the glare of its forthrightness. It shares body heat as a way of shedding the skin of expectation for something uniquely honest.
(Photo credit: An Woong Chul)
Just as the modern elements emphasize their ancient counterparts, so do the ancient shed light on the modern. In that respect, however, Son has little to say with regard to the Korean jazz scene: “My quartet doesn’t sit squarely in the Korean jazz scene, which is small enough as it is and has no place for outsiders like us. It hasn’t been easy, but we’ve made due by creating our own scene.” Listening to tracks like “Baram,” for which Sori Choi joins on traditional percussion, it’s impossible to disagree. The first in a handful drawn from the orally transmitted Pansori epics, it’s told from the viewpoint of a lover wishing for word from the one who has left her behind, yet whose dedication results in a fatal beating when she refuses a local magistrate. Her only hope is to reunite with her true love in another life. Kim sings with audacity and emotional integrity, embraced by a cosmic pond of guitar and lured by the percussion’s death knells. As also with the urgency of “Galggabuda” and patient intensity of “Jinyang,” each word feels like a sonorous wound. That said, Son attributes no special thematic significance to the chosen texts. “The language itself,” he says, “has its own color and rhythm that brings a different atmosphere to the music. There’s no point in understanding the meaning of the lyrics in my music.” To be sure, we can just as easily feel its pulse as if it were our own without translation.
This feeling of human connection is only enhanced by producer Sun Chung, whose gentle hand is felt by its very absence. “He never tried to guide us or anything,” recalls Son. “He just believed in our music. We recorded new songs that no one has heard before. Even we didn’t know what was going to happen. But during the recording, I felt like he already knew exactly what needed to happen. At one point I asked him, ‘Sun, why don’t you say something?’ To which he responded, ‘I’m not here to speak. I’m here to support whatever it is you want to do.” Although such freedom of expression is palpable throughout, it’s especially evident in “Garam” and “Ebyul.” Like currents flowing between islands, they make long distances seem surmountable by mere strum of guitar, brush of drum, or whisper of reed. Each is a dream turned inside out until we can step through it in reality, breathing in words as sacrifice and exhaling melody as reward.
When I ask Son what he hopes listeners will experience in this album, his answer is as straightforward as the music it describes: “Somethin’ else.”