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Jiyoung Lee: Snobs, Addicts & Royalty

Jiyoung Lee: Snobs, Addicts & Royalty
Ian Patterson By

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I was so happy about playing this music that I couldn't do my job anymore. I wanted to quit my job and be a pianist, so I did. —Jiyoung Lee
Jiyoung Lee, pianist/keyboardist and leader of Korean jazz-funk sextet Jazz Snobs Funk Addicts probably has to pinch herself from time to time. Encouraged from a young age by her parents to pursue a life as a classical pianist, Lee instead opted for the greater expressive freedom—and the economic uncertainty— offered by jazz. Her journey so far has been an inspiring one.

Within a few short years of taking the plunge, Lee found herself studying jazz in Texas, where she played with some of the very best North American jazz musicians and recorded a solo album. She also toured in trumpeter Maynard Ferguson's band, criss-crossing forty American states during ten months on the road. And whereas only a very small number of jazz musicians can claim to have played for royalty, Lee holds the unusual distinction of having played with royalty.

Settled once more in her native Korea, Lee's main concern at present is the sextet Jazz Snobs Funk Addicts—electrifying groove merchants whose second CD, Season 2: The Return of JSFA!! (Soundholic, 2013) would give any jazz-funk outfit a run for its money.

As far as sub-genres or branches of jazz go, jazz-funk is as diverse as most. In the 1970s alone, trumpeter Miles Davis' brooding stoner's music and pianist/keyboardist Herbie Hancock's Moog-heavy Head Hunters shifted records in the hundreds of thousands. Saxophonist Manu Dibango's Cameroonian-flavored dance vibes, the Blue Note grooves of guitarist Grant Green and trumpeter Donald Byrd, and the coarser grain of guitarist James Blood Ulmer were equally individualistic.

For Lee, the groove part of the JSFA equation comes from sources both old and new: "Though I'm a jazz pianist I always liked Herbie Hancock's funky stuff and [trumpeter] Roy Hargrove's RH Factor. I always liked funky rhythms and R&B music. My all-time favorite artist is D'Angelo so I always wanted to do some jazz with that kind of groove."

That's JFSA in a nutshell—jazz-funk tinged with R&B. Though Lee knew from the start the sound she wanted from the band it has taken several years for all the pieces to fall into place. JSFA's story began five years ago, with Lee, bassist Eunchang Choi, drummer Sangmin Lee and trumpeter Sunyong Bae making up the quartet. Lee knew in her bones, however, that such a set-up wouldn't realize the music in her head: "We figured we need a larger band because a quartet is not enough for this kind of music."

At this point drummer Sangmin Lee left JSFA to follow his dream of studying in the United States. Sangmin's departure was a blow for Lee: "He's an amazing drummer," she says. "Music is his life. I can feel the energy in his music. He's one of my favorite Korean jazz musicians."

The hunt for a replacement drummer proved to be a long process: "We tried all the young drummers in Korea," explains Lee, "and eventually we found Seunghoo Kim, our current drummer, who's also amazing." Alto saxophonist Jeesok Kim and guitarist Jaewon Jung were added to make up the sextet.

JSFA's eponymous debut, a blend of electro-acoustic jazz-funk and mellifluous contemporary jazz was released in 2009. It was a promising debut but the band definitely had the feel of a work in progress: "Before we recorded the first album we'd played together for less than a year," explains Lee. "We were trying new things but we weren't really settled yet. We were still struggling. Some things felt great but others were not really comfortable."

Even then, Lee was attempting to flesh out the band's sound: "For certain tunes I wanted to have one more horn player. There are a couple of tunes on the first album where we have three horns." On the heels of the first album JSFA were gigging a lot, but further changes in the line-up soon came about: "Once a band has played together for a while the goals can be different" reflects Lee, "and the alto player decided to leave the band."

It wasn't the only hurdle to overcome as around the same time drummer Seunghoo Kim was called up for mandatory military service: "We couldn't find a good sub," says Lee. "We tried a couple of different drummers but we failed. We stopped playing for a while."

The personnel changes might have been sufficient to derail many bands but Lee and the others decided to hang in there. After a hiatus of two and a half years Seunghoo Kim returned to the JSFA fold, and with tenor player Dongwook Lee replacing Jeesok Kim preparations began for the second album.

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