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.
TJG: What were your inspirations for these songs, the thoughts that started them?
JL: I think it’s really all about documenting my life. Some people will say, love songs are corny, cheesy, but I think it’s the most important, strongest emotion that we have, that can hold us. The title is As The Night Passes, so it’s lots of broken heart, or thinking of the love that I had in the past, how it ended. It has some hope at the end—as the night passes. Even though we have hard times, the night is long, the sun is coming up the next day, the dawn is happening. It’s the emotion of having passed through all the hardships, and now I’m done with that but still remember it and hope for the future. The new hope is happening; I’m at the moment reminiscing about past hardships but over that emotion.
TJG: How did you and Vadim Neselovsky come to be working together?
JL: I had another pianist who couldn’t make it, and on that day a lot of pianists I knew were out of town. Vadim is a wonderful pianist; I met him while I was studying at Berklee, and he was known as a person who said, “find your own voice” to his students. All of my fellow students loved him, because of his enthusiasm for teaching and music and this encouragement to find their own voices. I heard him a lot and participated in one of his classes, singing for a friend, so I heard a lot of his music and how he played. His name came up in my mind, and he’s not a typical pianist so I thought he would be a perfect fit for this project. We’re rehearsing for the first time on Wednesday! I’m looking forward to it.
I’ve never played any duo in my life, in the states; I’ve always been doing big band music. I’m nervous, but at the same time, very excited. In the big band, it always feels funny; here’s my music but I’m not going to play it. I’m really revealing myself! It’s very exciting.
TJG: Do you think you’ll be drawn in one direction or the other going forward? Playing your music or having it performed by others; small groups or big bands?
JL: My mentors told me that you have to focus on one thing, so you can go somewhere faster. I was feeling weird about it, because I do so many things; I want to do this, to do that, there’s so much music in me, so I can’t really get there—when you want to get your name out there, you have to be categorized. In some ways, it’s not a bad thing at all, but for me, I think I’m very versatile. I want to write different forms. Of course, it slows me down, to get somewhere as someone who represents more than one kind of music. I was worried I was doing something wrong. I was having moments, for five years, where I was saying, “I’m a big band composer, it’s just me, what can I do,” and also feeling like it was time to present my vocal album. I don’t know where this project will bring me, but it’s part of my journey.
After this album I’ll go back to my big band writing; I’m making my second orchestra album next year, and I’m eventually planning a third and fourth. At the end, I want to have one project, having all the vocal tunes arranged for big band, to merge two different genres I’ve been doing at once. I think it’s going to be a really exciting project for me, combining everything I can do.
TJG: You’re singing English, Korean, and wordless—how do you choose which of those to do?
JL: Some melodies can be better with English, some Korean. It’s not really planned out; it just happens that way. The Korean lyrics, I’m much more comfortable, so some songs happened quickly, I wrote them in two or three hours, full of inspiration. Some took days, and with English lyrics I asked friends to help me out, stuff like that.
TJG: What led you to The Jazz Gallery for this album release?
JL: I love the Jazz Gallery! I think it’s—the audience who comes, they’re very good. They come just to listen to the music. There’s no food, no heavy drinking culture. The audience wants to listen to music. They’re very welcoming of all the musicians, and I love that environment. Every time I perform there, they’re very open-minded. And I love Rio, I think she’s one of the very influential figures in the jazz scene, and I love her mindset: her philosophy, everything. It’s not commercialized yet, but the sound system is great, and I love the people who work there. It’s not swingy music, that I’m playing, it’s more artsy, and I felt like this was the place to perform it. I’ve performed there several times, and now I feel like I’m home.
Jihye Lee celebrates the release of As The Night Passes at The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, October 13, 2018. Ms. Lee, on voice and compositions, will be joined by Vadim Neselovsky on piano. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.