2010 Jarasum Jazz Festival, Gapeyong, South Korea
For the encore, the crowd exploded in a roar of appreciation for "Mo Better Blues." After the concert Watts explained that the Koreans like the tune as the melody sounds like a popular Korean folk song which has black keys. How did Watts know that folk song? He had, he explained, played the tune in eighth grade, proving that what goes round half way round the world comes round the other way. The second encore, a swinging New Orleans number with a beautiful motif brought final, killing solos from Marsalis and Blanchard, and a slow but ever-so swinging solo from Hurst. Returning to the head, Marsalis carried the melody increasingly softly, and to the obvious pleasure of Watts, a section of the crowd picked it up and sang it all the way home.
The reaction of the crowd to The Watts Project was a very clear indication that the Jarasum audience is highly appreciative of high caliber jazz, and it is unlikely that Watts and co. will have received such a vociferous reception on their tourone more usually reserved for rock stars.
The question was, how do you possibly follow The Watts Project? Something radically different was required, and over at the Jazz Cube venue lay the answer.
TaeHwan Kang is a seventy four-year old saxophonist who has been a leading figure in the avant-garde jazz scene for more than forty years. Once a member of the US Army Jazz Band stationed in South Korea, he ventured into experimental jazz in the 1960s and developed something of a cult following in avant-jazz circles in Japan and Europe. He stopped listening to any music other than his own in order to develop a pure sound. At Jarasum, Kang appeared solo before a packed tent, and, sitting cross-legged on the stage, proceeded to give a recital which seemed like a continuous variation on a single note.
Circular breathing enabled Kang to extend a note as long as he wanted, and his unusual lateral tonguing technique, his application of quarter notes and arresting harmonics combined to produce a strangely hypnotic listening experience. The performance was divided by pauses, or rests, which were filled with warm applause from a rapt audience. Kang's improvisations stemmed from a single sustained note, raising or lowering the pitch, riffing cyclically on a few notes and playing counter melody or drone simultaneously. Leaning over to his side from time to time, as though accompanied by some personal gravity, Kang drew sound from his saxophone which was both harsh and strangely meditative at the same time. His music, his sound, may repel some people, but it also has the power to seduce those who submit to its rhythms and to carry them on a journey into a very personal space.
The Norwegian trio led by pianist Helge Lien was next on the Jazz Cube stage and provided inevitably strong contrast to the solo explorations of TaeHwan Kang. "Axis of Free Will" began the show with the kind of intensity more usual of a climax, with drummer Per Oddvar and bassist Frode Berg supporting Lien's piano vamp with an enveloping wall of sound through which Lien unleashed intermittent sharp runs.
The trio maintained the intensity on "The Small Bear," with Lien's dissonant clusters and rapid sweeps of the keys rising from the rhythm barrage. Even when the impressive Berg took a solo on nhis upright the tension barely dipped, finding release only with the conclusion of the song. It wasn't all thunder and lightning though, as the neoclassical "Hym" changed the atmosphere with its folksy melancholy and bluesy swing reminiscent of Swedish pianist Jan Johansson. The distillation of folk, classical and hymnal roots which colors much Scandinavian jazz was also heard on the beautifully nostalgic "It Is What It Is But It Is."
The melody of Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" bookended more intense improvisational terrain and an absorbing set ended with "Natsukashii," a lovely ballad which reinforced the impression that Helge Lien is a composer of some note.
The final day of Jarasum presented the fourth annual Jazz Concourse, which gives the best South Korean jazz talent the chance to compete for the honor of taking the opening slot on the main stage at the following year's festival. Held in a tree-lined square in the center of Gapeyong town, the fair-sized crowd that gathered was treated to some impressive music by four bands.
Saxophonist Hyunpill Shinwho has studied Jazz Composition and Performance at Berkleeled a quartet of guitar, bass and drums through a set of original compositions which visited post-bop, blues and slightly avant-garde territory. Whether on tenor or soprano he exhibited great assurance and agility and was a worthy winner of the Best Soloist award.