Already with an acclaimed big band record under her belt, composer and vocalist Jihye Lee steps out in a new direction on her newest release, As The Night Passes. Instead of the extensive big band palette she used so deftly on her debut album, April, Lee strips down the music on As The Night Passes to just her voice and piano.
This Saturday, October 13, Lee returns to The Jazz Gallery to celebrate the album’s release, alongside pianist Vadim Neselovsky. We caught up with Lee by phone to talk about her approach to delivering her music in a vulnerable setting and the diverse origins of her musical materials.
The Jazz Gallery: How would you describe this project, and this show?
Jihye Lee: Before this project, I did a lot of big band writing, so this is a drastic change; I have seventeen people in my band, and now I’m having a duo album release show! So I think it’s a very different project, I think I’ve been more vulnerable. Before I was facing my back to the audience, I was conducting. I let my band play my music; now I have to deliver it. At the same time, it’s more me, I composed it and I’m singing with my voice. It’s more of me delivering my music; it’s very different. It’s kind of unusual, that a big band composer sings.
TJG: Why did you decide to move from a big band to a duo?
JL: I was a singer-songwriter in Korea, and I came to the United States and became a big band composer. I loved the harmony of jazz, the intricate rhythms, while I was in Korea already. I’ve lived in the states for seven years, and I dedicated myself intensely for five years to the big band writing. But meanwhile I was still writing vocal music, it was natural for me to write songs, singing stuff. This is the collection of songs I’ve been writing for five years. Two years ago, I was thinking, I have to put it out there! Otherwise I’ll let my ideas down. So I recorded all of my songs, like ten songs that I chose, and recorded it. I neglected it again, for two years, and this fall I just thought I should do it. It’s not a surprise to me; it’s natural. I’m a writer who uses different forms.
TJG: Do you think of this as jazz?
JL: I don’t know! [Laughs]. It’s hard to describe; it’s not swing music at all. It’s not one music at all either. It’s very European jazz, modern jazz, I would say. And also there’s some Korean pop music in it, because that’s what I listened to growing up! Even though I didn’t really intend to write music like that, I was thinking that there’s a lot of jazz harmony, it’s still Korean. I don’t know how to describe it. Some people say my singing is like musical theater; jazz-y, folk-y. It can be anything; it’s a hard question for me to answer, because I’m inside of it; I can’t see myself objectively. I honestly don’t know.
TJG: What was your compositional process like?
JL: I mostly write lyrics, melody, chord changes at the same time. It’s kind of crazy. Some songs, I wrote the melody and chord changes first, and then I put the lyrics later. Two of the songs, I collaborated with another lyricist; I gave her Korean lyrics and she translated or wrote me lyrics.
I think composition to me is all about delivery and expressing myself, so when I have something that I want to say, I think about the image and what kind of melody will deliver this emotion or thoughts in the proper way. It always starts with my imagination, with thoughts, and thinking about the form that the music will take.