If tuneful, cinematic, vivid and distantly haunting big band jazz is up your alley, you should know that the Jihye Lee Orchestra are playing Symphony Space this Friday, April 14 at 8 PM. Cover is $25, which is reasonable for a Manhattan gig by a 20-piece ensemble. To give you an idea of what they’ll be playing, here’s what their gripping, picturesque debut album April Wind sounds like. It hasn’t made it to any of the usual places on the web yet, although half the tracks are up at Lee’s video page.
The title track, which opens the six-part suite, begins with a rhythmless lustre and a distant sense of foreboding, the only place in the piece where that’s allowed to creep in. Sean Jones’ airy trumpet mingles with the bandleader’s wistful vocalese. Spare, carefree piano phrases from Alain Mallett mingle as the orchestra rises with brassy flair over an easygoing sway. A dancing rhythm comes to the forefront with an incisive piano solo. A casually spiraling Shannon LeClaire alto sax solo leads the ensemble in a return to gently swaying lushness.
John Lockwood’s tersely dancing bass hook opens the practically thirteen-minute epic Sewol Ho, then gives way to a bit of icy, chromatic piano and then an exchange of brass that picks up the melody. Suspense builds over an understated clave, a brooding call-and-response between brass and reeds that wouldn’t be out of place in the Chris Jentsch big band book. A minor sixth chord lingers, actual or implied, eventually edged out by uneasy close harmonies and then a seemingly free interlude pairing off spare, bubbling individual voices: trumpet, drums, bass, trombone each scrambling around in the waves. Rhythm returns with an ominous low-brass pulse underneath those voices: then the music literally slides down and out for a second. Then the bass clarinet leads a search party, more or less, over a bubbling, reedy groove that builds with considerable gravitas and shivery clarinet.
The way the piano and horns, then Lee’s voice paired with alto sax, mirror the previous number’s intro as Deep Blue Sea gets underway is especially artful. A carefree/foreboding dichotomy develops between highs and lows; again, the rhythm grows bouncier, this time on the wings of a gentle, smoke-tinted tenor sax solo. Lee takes the orchestra in a more ebullient, brass-fueled direction, then pauses and returns to a spare, moody piano-and-tenor interlude
Whirlwind begins over a brisk clave, cloudbanks of brass passing quickly overhead, punctuated by dynamic shifts, a piano solo bristling with icepick chords, and then a return to a brass-driven intensity. Building out of a spare piano phrase beneath emphatic horns, Guilty follows a martial beat up to Shostakovian, menacingly gavelling phrases that back away for a long, judicious Bruce Bartlett guitar solo, then a long, crushing coda that leaves no doubt what the verdict is. The final number is You, a slow ballad with a bright opening chart that backs away for a melancholy Jones flugelhorn solo and then brightens as the energy picks up. A series of pensive swells make way for a calmly lively Jones solo spot, then spring returns and everything is in bloom again.
Spoiler alert: if you want to find out for yourself what this is about, stop here, bookmark the page, give the album a spin or better yet, go see the show and then come back.
The backstory here is that Lee’s suite follows the narrative of the April, 2014 Sewol ferry disaster. More than three hundred passengers were killed when the vessel sank off the Korean coast. In Boston at the time, the Korean-born composer wrote much of the suite in the weeks that followed.
News reports on the disaster have been conflicted: what is apparent is that the ferry was overloaded, and many eyewitness accounts concur that the crew didn’t react immediately when it was apparent that the ship was in distress. The same thing happened over a hundred years ago north of Nova Scotia; an iceberg was involved that time. Nobody went to jail for that one. The owner of the Sewol was found dead, victim of foul play, a year after going on the run. That case also remains unsolved.