Korean-born composer and vocalist Jihye Lee brings a rich, kaleidoscopic new voice to the realm of big band writing. Her first big band album, April, was composed in response to the catastrophic wreck of the Korean ferry Sewol in April of 2014, which killed over three hundred travelers, many of whom were teenage children. The music on April runs the gamut of human emotions, and affords Lee the opportunity to respond to the tragedy in a concentrated yet multifaceted way: April reflects not only the unfolding of this disaster, but offers a ray of hope, as April is viewed as a month of life blossoming, as life emerging from a long winter.
Lee, who has been featured in The Jazz Gallery Jazz Composers’ Showcase twice in the last season, will return to the Gallery as leader presenting new and old works of delicately-woven, modern big band music. We spoke with Lee about the complexity of being a composer in a city as solitary as New York, and the ways in which creative and emotional challenges manifest themselves in her music.
The Jazz Gallery: Tell me a little about the new music you’ll be presenting at the Gallery.
Jihye Lee: I recorded and released my album April last year, so some of the music at the Gallery will be from that album. I’ve composed maybe seven or eight more tunes since I moved to New York two years ago. Our living environment is very important, I think. Music is the reflection of your life right? Since I’ve moved to New York, I think the energy of the city has changed my music in a good way. There’s more crunchiness, more anger, but in a positive way. New York can be very radical, but cold at the same time. I like those changes.
TJG: Can you tell me a little more about that crunchiness? Is it in the orchestration, rhythm, timbre?
JL: I think it’s in everything. I faced some hardship when I came to New York; it could be a reflection of that. The crunchiness is also in the harmonic material as well. I used a lot of minor 2nds and 9ths. We learn in school, “Don’t use minor 9ths,” but in order to make personal, emotional statements, you need to use those forbidden harmonic moves. Rhythms too. My new music can be rhythmically very unexpected. It’s not always 4/4. It can be going along, and suddenly have a fast measure of 3/8. It surprises you. In some situations, it’s like you’re walking on the street, and then you stumble, and then you’re staggering. “What’s happening?” you ask in the moment. So it’s harmonic and rhythmic material, but there’s emotional statements too. The soul you put into your music is the most crucial thing, a spiritual thing, and it has to be delivered to the audience.
TJG: When your compositional voice is the big band, how do you compose, and imagine how it might sound, when alone with your computer in your office or studio?
JL: It’s quite an adventure [laughs]. I don’t consider myself a very experienced writer yet, so every time I write new music, I have a lot of self doubt. How will it sound? What if it’s terrible? What if it doesn’t work with the live band? I don’t write music that’s comfortable or safe. I always want to challenge myself and the musicians, to experiment a bit. Sometimes, I revise the music after I hear the real players, but most of the time I’m happy with the sound. The experience I do have helps me imagine the sound from the band while I’m writing with the computer or on paper. Even still, every time I have my music in front of the musicians, I get a little nervous.
TJG: Speaking of being in front of the musicians, I interviewed Darcy James Argue several years ago and he spoke about how it’s logistically and financially insane to try to have a big band these days, but when you’re standing in front of eighteen musicians, you get this addictive rush. Is standing in front of the big band an exciting feeling for you?
JL: Well, I was a singer-songwriter in Korea, so I never dreamed, never even imagined, that I would be a big band writer. I went to Berklee, and that was the first time I heard big band music in person. I was overwhelmed in the best way. That energy! Filling the stage! The big band is all about horns, and it’s very human, with the breath, the control. I didn’t know that kind of music existed. That’s why I’ve gotten into big band music. When you’re writing for big band, you have to manage everything. Financially, it can be very challenging. Putting together rehearsals, logistics, it’s hard. Unless I’m standing in front of a big band, I usually say, “Wow, this is hard, why do I do this?” [laughs]. But yes, the reason we still do it is the energy. When you put your music in front of the players, that synergy, that joy, that emotional connection, that excitement, it’s overwhelming. And a big band is such an expressive tool for bringing my music to life. It can be delicate, it can be masculine. Most horn players can double, and brass players can use mutes. There’s a huge palette. The energy is always there, but the sound can be almost anything.
TJG: Music can be most powerful when responding to mystery or tragedy, which is a big force behind your album April. Do you use composition and singing as a means of celebration too?
JL: Honesty is crucial in art. Without it, I don’t think music has the power to penetrate people’s hearts and souls. I haven’t mean to write only ‘dark’ music. In Boston, the first album was a reaction to tragedy. The timing just happened like that: I felt like I was meant to do it. Then, I moved to New York, had some personally dark times, but wrote some melodically beautiful music, lyrical things, especially using my voice as a singer as well. Now, I feel like my life has turned to the brighter side. And my friends tell me, “Hey, I’m looking forward to hearing some bright joy in your music, because your life will be better, it will respond to your music.”
TJG: Composing can be solitary, too. It can be easier to express joy through music when you’re making it with other people.
TJG: That’s very true. Composing music is often all about yourself. When you have a good moment, you want to share it, and when you have a dark moment, you want to be alone, to express something else, so the creative processes are very different.
TJG: You’ve been involved in The Jazz Gallery Jazz Composers’ Showcase a few times. What was it like to present your music alongside other big band composers?
JL: The Jazz Gallery, first of all, is one of my favorite venues in New York. It’s still very ‘artsy,’ where some of the venues in Manhattan can be very commercial. The Jazz Gallery always hosts wonderful artists, and isn’t commercial in any way. It’s about true art, and the audience is very appreciative of the musicians on stage. I don’t think any other venue does a show where they put together a band and invite composers to premiere works, and I appreciate that The Jazz Gallery does it. Every composer has their own color, and after practicing your craft in solitude, it’s a special treat to see a new composer with a new sound.
The Jihye Lee Jazz Orchestra plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, March 29, 2018. The band is conducted by Ms. Lee, and features Michael Thomas, Alex LoRe, Jeremy Powell, Quinsin Nachoff, and Carl Maraghi on reeds; John Lake, Jim O’Connor, Danny Jonokuchi, and Matt Holman on trumpet; James Burton lll, Nick Finzer, Matt McDonald, and Becca Patterson on Trombone, John Olgun on piano, Sungwon Kim on guitar, Evan Gregor on bass, and Daniel Dor on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved cabaret seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.