Korean-born composer Jihye Lee is a musician who knows her own mind, whether it be relentless, unshakable, revived, dissatisfied or Daring, as on her second recording for Motema Records. In 2018, Lee earned the prestigious BMI Charlie Parker Composition Prize for "Unshakable Mind," one of nine diverse themes presented here. Another, "I Dare You," is loosely based on Wayne Shorter's response when asked, "What is jazz?" It is a question Lee must also address, as her music is not only thematic but, in many ways, more closely allied to chamber music than to more traditional big-band jazz. As Lee points out in the liner notes, she is not "a traditional swing band style composer." She comes closest perhaps on "Why Is That," a shuffling blues whose groovy rhythmic patterns flow directly from the jazz playbook.
It is interesting to note that Lee says she was "dissatisfied" while writing that piece, as though she should have been writing something deeper and more consequentialwhereas fans of big-band jazz may well see it as the most satisfying work on the album. It does swing, a pleasant counterpoint to what comes before and after. That is not to imply that anything Lee writes is less than proficient. Her compositions are neatly drawn, with melodies, harmonies, rhythms and counterpoint well within the boundaries of accepted custom, and dissonance kept for the most part at arm's length. And there must be a reason why Lee is winning awards. Even so, it is up to the listener to decide whether her intricate and essentially exploratory themes can elicit repeated approval.
As any scrupulous big-band composer must, Lee sets aside blowing space on every number, even though most of the soloists are unnamed. Guest trumpeter Sean Jones is an exception, showcased on the gospel-inspired anthem "Struggle Gives You Strength" and (with trombonist Alan Ferber) on the sunny opener, "Relentless Mind." The brisk alto sax solo on "Why Is That" is by Ben Kono or Rob Wilkerson (take your pick). Some listeners may take to Lee's music like ducks to water; others may find that water too cool and choppy to suit their taste. Either way, Lee is securely at the helm, inflexibly steering the ship toward her chosen destination. Those who choose to board may find the voyage predictably turbulent yet unexpectedly rewarding.
Relentless Mind; Unshakeable Mind; Suji; I Dare You; Revived Mind; Struggle Gives You Strength; Why Is That; Dissatisfied Mind; GB.