Lucid Culture


Eunhye Jeong and Her Quartet Make Haunting Improvisational Music Out of Otherworldly Korean Pansori Themes

Pianist Eunhye Jeong‘s CHI-DA quartet’s live album The Colliding Beings – streaming at Bandcamp – is like nothing else you’ll hear this year. With an otherworldly intensity true to the spirit of the epic Korean pansori tradition, the group reinvent those stark, dramatic themes as jazz improvisation. What’s most striking is that Jeong brings in the great pansori singer Il-dong Bae, whose stern, melismatic vocals shed eerie microtones and soar over the instrumentalists in more muted moments, and interact with them when the music grows more stormy. The greatest pansori singers are known for their individualistic interpretations, so there’s always been an element of improvisation in the tradition, and Jeong seizes that mightily here, with a relentless unease and a fondness for lower registers. This is dark music.

The concert is a series of longscale works that conclude with a relatively brief, six-minute number. The group – which also includes cellist Ji Park and colorful drummer Soo Jin Suh – open with the almost eighteen-minute Jeogori, based on a historical song popular among diasporic Korean schoolchildren in Japan. There’s a lot of stark conversationality throughout this performance, beginning with murky resonance and quickly giving way to a little leaping around. The drums introduce a suspensefully muted backbeat as the cello scrapes the lows and Jeong colors the music with enigmatic close harmonies and sudden bursts. Bae’s gruffly impassioned intensity eventually recedes for a persistently flurrying, funereal Atrocity Exhibition beat contrasting with all the agitation overhead; then the vocals take over the rhythm. Mysterious lulls and gritty declamations serve as a contrasting backdrops for spare, rather bleak accents from the band.

The ghostly, anguished Return to Life begins with snowbanks of white noise from Suh’s drumheads punctuated by icy piano droplets, shards and wisps of sound from the cello as Jeong goes to stygian lows. A flickering franticness that recalls the macabre compositions of Michael Hersch develops, rises and falls, Jeong using every texture available, both inside and outside the piano, from a menacing drone to furtive scrambles and fragmented, circularly percussive phrases, Bae lingering like a spectre outside the window.

The centerpiece of the concert is The Hope Landed. In about twenty-six minutes, Bae is an often anguished, desolate voice in the wilderness, Jeong a persistently restless presence, Park and Suh the shadows lingering behind. There’s infinitely more going on: dynamically shifting variations on an insistently troubled, stairstepping Messiaenic passage; a long, aching vocal interlude with atmospheric, lurking cello and leapfrogging piano; chilly, ambient dips to stillness; surreal handoffs and echo effects; heavy, severe block chords from Jeong; and a hint of a ballad at the end.

The Sacrifice is dedicated to the victims of the 2014 Sewol Ferry disaster. Calm/acerbic contrasts between cello and piano build tension, then back away elegantly for Bae’s mournful intonations: this music transcends any linguistic limitation. The grim crescendo midway through, seemingly where the overcrowded boat capsizes and everything goes flying, is arguably the most intense point of the show. They bring it full circle, elegaically.

They close the concert with Curtain Call, a return to contrasts between shamanistic beats and poltergeist piano blurts, and shivers from the rest of the ensemble. Even if free jazz is a little outside for you, the roles are so clearly defined and the playing so focused here that fans of dark sounds in general should check this out.

March 29, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Jang Sa-ik at New York City Center 4/18/09

[Editor’s note: special thanks to Jinho Jang, proprietor of the 32nd St. jazz hideaway J’z for his invaluable help with translations]


Jang Sa-ik is a populist phenomenon in his native South Korea. Despite being virtually ignored by corporate radio and tv, he’s become something of a Springsteen there, with six chart-topping albums and consistently sold-out concerts extending throughout the Korean diaspora around the world. As with Fela and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan before him, there’s every reason to believe that there’s a mass audience here in the US ready to anoint him as the first Korean world music star. Saturday night’s powerful, marathon performance vividly revealed some of the reasons behind his status as a cultural icon. With a fifteen-piece band and choir, the concert began as riveting, darkly rich orchestral spectacle, morphing into an upbeat stadium show and ending as carefree karaoke, the once-sedate, sold-out audience transformed and raising their voices.


The lights went down for the first part, ominous, majestic and white-knuckle intense like a Pink Floyd concert. Jang has lately been doing his live show in three stages, beginning with Death, moving to Life and then to what could be characterized as the Good Old Days. Unsurprisingly, it was death’s icy hand that exerted the most powerful grip as the 59-year-old singer, immaculate in a white traditional Korean robe, strode to the mic and in a potently projected baritone, backed only by the piano, worldlessly intoned the long introduction to the stately dirge Back to Heaven. As influenced by American soul music as by pansori (Korean operatic singing) and the rural folk music that he first heard as a child, Jang drew out the notes, often ending a phrase with an impassioned, somewhat raspy vibrato evocative of Wilson Pickett or Sam Cooke. The majestic, epic orchestration of the next several songs aptly evoked their English titles: Empty Ocean, Dusk Road and then the best song of the night, This Is Not It, equal parts haunting, memorable minor-key anthem and cautionary tale to seize the day (otherwise This Is Not It becomes This Was It).


Jang then left the stage and the lights went up for an interminable drum solo that morphed into primitive heavy  metal, the guitarist (now on Telecaster) joining in the melee. Finally, Jang returned (he’d used the interlude to change into a loosely immaculate grey suit) and they launched into an irresistibly amusing version of the rock ballad Silly Angel (from Jang’s latest cd, Volume 6/Mother, See the Flowers) done here as simple Black Sabbath-style stomp complete with leaden funk-metal interlude. “Welcome to the club!” Jang laughed after they finally wrapped it up.


From there, the band made their way through a mix of Jang’s hits and Korean pop standards, mostly from the 60s and 70s. His Roy Orbison-inflected, somewhat noir pop hit Wild Rose took on an ELO-style grandeur, contrasting with lighter fare such as the popular standard Daejeon Blues (featuring some nice, jazzy muted trumpet) and a medley of singalong covers ranging from psychedelic-tinged 60s inflected pop to a rather cloying number that sounded like an Asian version of Bread. The last of the encores was Airirang, the national folk song of Korea, vastly preferred over the national anthem of either country because it predates the nation’s division by any of the colonizing powers who’ve tormented its native population over the centuries. At the end of the show, Jang offered a heartfelt thanks to the audience for having helped him conquer the nasty cold he’d caught after arriving here, telling them that they’d kept him warm throughout the show. No doubt he’d done the same. “You are deep and beautiful like the night,” Jang told the crowd as he left the stage, perhaps inadvertently but perfectly capsulizing his appeal.

April 20, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments