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.

Season 2: The Return of JSFA!! marks a significant step forward for the band in terms of its musical identity. Lee's compositions groove like hell and they're also extremely tuneful: "On the first album the horn guys were great jazz soloists. For this second album Dongwook Lee and Junghyun Cho the trumpet player actually have a lot of experience playing in the Korean pop scene so they've played a lot of sections together. They're tighter and that makes a difference."

Guitarist Jaewon Jung, an incredibly talented musician who brings a bluesy John Scofield edge to the music is another with extensive experience of the Korean pop industry. Lee is effusive in her praise for JSFA's young guitarist—her former student: "He's an amazing guitarist. He's actually pretty big on the Korean pop scene right now. He has a lot of experience and he knows how to make good sounds in different situations.

"When I compose a new tune and we start rehearsing I don't say much to him," Lee expands. "We start playing and he just knows what to do. It's like he reads my mind. I usually write the bass part a little and the horn parts and I tell the drummer how I want the drums to sound but for the guitar part I tell him to play whatever he wants and I know it's going to be perfect. He's a very talented guitarist. I don't know where he gets all his ideas."

The Korean pop industry—a global phenomenon—can be extremely lucrative for good session players, but as Lee explains the JSFA guitarist has his feet firmly planted on the ground: "I shouldn't generalize, but in a lot of cases pop musicians are very busy and they stop practicing; but Jaewon [Jung] is very focused on the music. He wants to be a great musician. He works a lot and listens to all different kinds of music. He doesn't have a lot of experience playing jazz standards but we listen to a lot of current jazz."

Whilst there's clearly greater chemistry on JFSA' second CD a lot of it, explains Lee, is attributable to hard work: "We rehearsed every week for quite a while. We'd get together, have lunch and then play for two hours, even if we didn't have stuff to rehearse. We played a lot of concerts. We played the Jarasum International Jazz Festival twice and a lot of club dates. By the time we recorded the second album we felt a lot better together. The rhythm section is a lot tighter. We found some kind of energy and we got to know each other better. The band on the second CD is a lot tighter."

Rhythm is at the core of the music on Season 2: The Return of JSFA!! but there's little distinction between the rhythm section and the lead instruments—in JSFA everybody is grooving. Saxophonist Dongwook Lee has brought another dimension to the band, soloing with real fire, but tempered by a strong rhythmic sensibility.

Like many young Korean jazz musicians these days Dongwook Lee studied in New York but he breaks the mold in a certain respect: "He studied traditional acoustic jazz but he was also into this electric stuff," says Lee. "There are a lot off really great saxophone players in Korea but not many of them are interested in playing groove music. They want to play brilliant solos and harmonic ideas but to play in this kind of band you have to play rhythm. You have to build the rhythms. Dong's interested in this kind of stuff."

A big part of the equation in JSFA's tight sound is the harmony that exists between the band members: "That's one of the most important things," Lee emphasizes. "Even if you have great players if you have strong egos then it's hard to play together. All the current members of JSFA are very nice. They're cooperative and there are no egos."

There may be no clashing egos in JSFA but Lee undoubtedly holds the reins, whereas the first CD was more collectively driven. The greater focus and direction that stems primarily from Lee on JSFA's second CD is the biggest change in the music: "When we did the first CD there was no leader," Lee says. Nobody was leading the band. We all wrote a couple of tunes each."

The two and a half year pause in JSFA' activity afforded Lee the time to refocus her ideas: "We had to make a new band and I decided to be the leader," says Lee. "I really wanted to play what I wanted to play. This was going to be my band."

Lee's personal stamp is all over Season 2: The Return of JSFA!. She wrote and arranged all the tracks and her playing on piano and electric keyboard, as accompanist and soloist, informs the music greatly.

As Lee explains, the music is inspired by the coming together of quite different musical threads:"JSFA is a combination of things," she explains. "The harmony comes from traditional jazz and classical music but the rhythms are from hip-hop and R&B. For writing, my biggest influence is classical music. I get my harmonic ideas from classical music. For rhythmic ideas my inspiration is D'Angelo, I love him so much, and then [Roy Hargrove's] RH Factor. The inspiration is mixed but it's my music."

Another change in JSFA's sound is the inclusion of vocal tracks on Season 2: The Return of JSFA!!, with singer Shinae An Wheeler performing "Come Together"—the CD's only cover—and the infectious, Korean-language "Trust Issue"—a nailed on hit single if ever there was one.

Lee is clearly delighted by the singer's contribution: "I wanted to find a vocalist who can sing traditional jazz but at the same time this funky stuff. Shinae is the right combination. She has a great voice and sings jazz standards amazingly well. A lot of Korean singers try too much. There are a lot of great singers in Korea but they try to sound too much like other singers. Shinae is very natural. She has a beautiful voice and she phrases naturally in English. That's very important."

What has been important for Lee all along is to follow her instincts. It's primarily for this reason that she abandoned her classical music studies, gave up her job and opted instead to pursue jazz: "I played a lot of classical music when I was a kid,' says Lee. "My Mum wanted me to be a concert pianist and I worked really hard, winning competitions and so on, but I found that I wasn't very good at practicing and to be a concert pianist you have to practice six hours a day. I couldn't do that at all. So I quit music and started my major in statistics, because I like mathematics a lot."

It was at college that Lee caught the jazz bug: "I started listening to jazz and it really hit me," she recalls. "I always liked music with groove. Even though I really like classical music if music doesn't have groove it doesn't affect me much. Jazz has groove and the harmony is great. So I started as a listener and I collected records but I didn't think much about playing jazz."

In college Lee played in a rock band, where she admits she learned a lot about group dynamics: "If I hadn't played in a rock band I wouldn't have experienced playing with drums and how a band sounds, what the bassist's role is and what I'm supposed to do as a keyboard player. These were important lessons."

Upon graduating, Lee took a day-job, which she held for a year. She decided to take jazz lessons, though she describes this as merely a hobby at the outset. Hobbies, however, have a habit of getting out of control, which was the case with Lee: "I found myself loving it so much," she relates. "I grew really fast because I already had piano technique and I'd listened to jazz seriously for four years in college so everything was in my head. I was pretty good" Lee admits, laughing. "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. I quit and started jazz seriously."

Enrolling at Dongduk women's university in Seoul, Lee majored in jazz and started playing in small jazz clubs throughout South Korea. Her deepening relationship with the music fuelled her ambition further: "When I started playing I realized I wanted to learn more. I wanted to learn in the United States where jazz was born and that's how it happened."

Most Korean jazz musicians head to New York or Boston to study, but Lee opted for Texas: "At that time I couldn't afford to study in New York," reasons Lee. "The University of North Texas is a very good school. It has a long history and a lot of great musicians and comparably the tuition was relatively cheap. Living expenses in Texas are not high at all compared to New York. They offered me a scholarship so I didn't have to spend too much money to study jazz in the United States."

Before leaving Korea, Lee and bassist Choi tied the knot and headed to Texas as newlyweds, to study jazz: "When we arrived there were maybe four or five Korean students" says Lee, "but there were more and more every year." Lee is full of praise for the jazz program at UNT and the opportunities it afforded her: "A lot of Korean students go to Berklee to study jazz, or New York, but North Texas is definitely worth it. It's a great school. The students were nice and I had a lot of opportunities to play with great musicians."

Just as students who enroll in New York or Boston, Lee found that some of the best education came through gigging: "In Texas there are quite a lot of chances to play gigs in the Dallas area. I played a gig with a singer who sang a lot of jazz standards. He sang thirty songs every night. That's where you learn your music. I was also lucky to be in the One O'clock Lab Band."

The University of North Texas' One O'clock Lab Band has a long, prestigious history. The students' band shared billing with pianist/bandleader Duke Ellington and saxophonist Stan Getz at the White House in 1967, has performed at the Montreux International Jazz Festival, and, under the auspices of the State Department, has toured South America, Asia and Europe over the decades, including a tour of the former Soviet Union in 1976. For Lee, playing and touring with the OOLB was an invaluable experience.

"First of all the students are very good," says Lee. "The level of musicianship is very high and so is the expectation. Once you're in the One O'clock Lab Band you're treated like a professional musician. One of the great things about playing in the OOLB is that the rhythm section plays with visiting musicians. We had a lecture series every fall semester and you accompany the musicians for that lecture class. Every week a different artist—a famous musician—came to give a lecture. There were about ten artists per semester."

As part of the OOLB rhythm section from the fall of 2003 to the spring of 2004 Lee got to play with jazz royalty such as saxophonists Jimmy Heath and Rich Perry, trombonist Slide Hampton, drummers Jimmy Cobb and Ari Hoenig and percussionist Airto Moreira. And in an unforeseeable turn of events, Lee soon found herself playing with actual royalty.

The University of North Texas offered the King of Thailand, His Highness Bhumibhol Adulyadej (Rama IX) an Honorary Doctorate Degree whereupon the jazz-loving King duly reciprocated the honor by inviting the OOLB to the kingdom: "The OOLB arranged a couple of the King's original tunes and then we played for him in a formal concert hall in Bangkok, which was broadcast on [Thai] national television. Then we did a clinic for college students," recalls Lee. The concert was recorded and released as the CD/DVD Live from Thailand (UNT, 2007).

The Thai King, who has sat on the throne since 1946, is commonly known as the jazz king. A jazz clarinetist, the revered King has jammed with trombonist Jack Teagarden, clarinetist Benny Goodman and drummer Gene Krupa and has composed hundreds of jazz tunes. Whenever a foreign jazz group tours Thailand it is customary that they play one of the King's compositions in respectful homage.

For the occasion of his 60th anniversary on the throne, Bangkok staged the Jazz Royale Festival in recognition of his life-long passion for jazz. It was fitting that heavyweights such as pianists Ahmad Jamal and McCoy Tyner, singer Nancy Wilson, violinist Regina Carter and the Dizzy Gillespie All Star Big Band all graced the two-day festival. More dubious, however, was the distinction of headliner handed to the incredibly popular saxophonist Kenny G.

For Thais, just to glimpse their beloved King is considered highly auspicious, often moving people to tears. To meet his Royal Highness in person is the experience of a lifetime. In the Royal courts the protocol is to sit at the King's feet, averting the gaze and moving towards him on the knees. Thai subjects habitually prostrate themselves before their King.

So, when the King invited several members of the OOLB to jam with him it was rare privilege conferred upon few: "The King invited the rhythm section of the band to his private party in a palace and asked us if we could accompany him on a couple of tunes. That was a great honor. I couldn't believe it," Lee recalls a decade later. "I saw the Thai people there and they don't walk in front of the King; they walk on their knees. We were the only people there who didn't have to do that. I felt very, very honored."

With the OOLB under the directorship of Neil Slater, Lee also played the Vision Festival in Canada and the IAJE conference in New York: "Three tours is a lot for students. I was lucky," acknowledges Lee. Luck, or maybe providence played its hand when Lee and husband Choi were invited to join trumpeter Maynard Ferguson's band shortly after graduating.

"Maynard Ferguson always had young musicians in his bands," says Lee. "A lot of musicians went through that band—like a school. He liked the University North Texas players. When some musicians quit his band he tried to find new members from the UNT graduates—from recommendations. About the time I graduated the drummer with Maynard Ferguson was a college friend of mine. He graduated first and joined Maynard Ferguson's band. When Maynard was looking for a bass and pianist my friend contacted me and asked if me and my husband were interested."

Not a lot of thought was needed and they soon dispatched some demo CDs for Maynard to evaluate. Impressed with what he heard Maynard gave them both the nod. "It was very quick," says Lee. "We were lucky."

Though already 75 years old when Lee and Choi joined his band, Ferguson still had high-grade fuel in the tank: "He was very popular and he still played a lot—small concerts, big concerts, colleges, City Halls and Arts Centers," Lee remembers. "Maynard was a legendary trumpeter player and a very, very nice guy. There are some great musicians but as personalities they are hard to deal with," Lee says laughing, evidently from first-hand experience, "but Maynard was really kind to all the band members. It was a great experience."

Ferguson's tours, Lee relates, usually lasted between two to three months at a stretch: "We played something like forty states with him on three or four tours. We toured on a bus—old-school style. We had bunk beds on the tour bus and when we had to travel more than six hours we would leave at night. When we woke up in the morning we'd find ourselves in a new city. When we went to big cities we always played at the famous jazz clubs, in which case we'd play three or four nights in a row," says Lee. "I felt really honored to play for such a legendary musician on the same stage."

A veteran of the Stan Kenton Orchestra in the 1950s, Ferguson formed his nine/ten-piece Big Bop Nouveau Band in 1988, touring nine months out of the year up until his death in 2006. Such road warriors are almost a thing of the past and the audiences, as Lee recalls, were greatly appreciative of Ferguson, his status as one of the elders of a legendary period in jazz history, and of his band: "Wherever we were the audience really appreciated the band," says Lee. "They really listened. I could feel the love of the audiences. They appreciated us being there. That was really important."

Returning to Korea at the end of the final tour with Ferguson, however, was an altogether different experience: "When I first came back to Korea I played in these small jazz clubs and it was really hard because the people were not listening to the music; they were just talking and not paying attention. They didn't expect to hear good jazz at all. They were just there for coffee. I had a hard time adjusting to this new situation," Lee admits.

"Usually, in a funky band like Jazz Snobs Funk Addicts, if we play for a younger generation audience in their twenties they react more and applaud more. But if we play a regular jazz club where the audience is a lot of different generations sometimes they don't even applaud," Lee laughs incredulously. "It happens. It's really frustrating. Koreans are shy. I found it's the same way with a lot of Asian audiences. Maybe it's a generational thing because the younger generation is more open and they are eager to express their feelings."

There's no better example of the young, enthusiastic Korean audience than the Jarasum International Jazz Festival, which pulls in well over 200,000 revelers: "Jarasum is always good," says Lee. "It's one of the nicest venues a Korean jazz musician can play. I've played Jarasum twice with JSFA and one time with my acoustic quartet. I love playing there; it's so awesome."

Lee's experiences in the One O'clock Lab Band and Ferguson's Big Bop Nouveau Band have been invaluable stepping stones for Lee, though she's skeptical as to whether or not the large ensemble sound has actually influenced her writing for the two-horn line-up of jazz Snobs Funk Addicts: "I can definitely say it helped me a lot but I don't know about trying to sound like a big band. I do like horn sections. The power of a horn section brings a lot to the music," says Lee.

"I would love to have four horns in my band but I can't afford it and it's hard to find musicians who can do it. If I write a chart I write an arrangement for a horn section and I direct them; you have to breathe right here and the intonation goes like this. I can make these requests because I have experience playing in big bands. If I didn't, I don't think I would know what to say to the horn players. Articulations are so important."

There is, however, a whole other side to Lee: "JSFA is just one part of my music. Mainly I do acoustic mainstream jazz. I write a lot for acoustic music." Shortly after leaving Ferguson's Big Bop Nouveau Band Lee recorded her debut as leader, Confession (Kang & Music, 2006), a collection of original compositions. Lee looks back on that recording with mixed feelings: "There are definitely good things on that CD but as a musician I'm never happy with my playing, to be honest. I know what my weaknesses were at that time, my strengths too, and I can still hear that. It's not like I hate it but there are certain things that you do on a recording that always bother you, so I stopped listening to my first album for a couple of years. I listened to it again just the other day and I found that there were a lot of good things there."

It would be four years before Lee recorded another acoustic jazz CD as leader; Closer to You (JazzSnobs Records, 2010) is the work of a mature, articulate musician whose great technical command of her instrument translates in wonderfully flowing improvisations. It won Lee Best Jazz Pianist in Korea's Jazz People Reader's Poll that year and led to further festival appearances in Korea and Malaysia, at the Penang Island Jazz Festival.

Closer to You is a mixture of mostly originals and interpretations of songs by pianist Scott Joplin, songwriter Johny Mercer and pianist Bill Evans, though perhaps the standout track in terms of Lee's imaginative melodic and harmonic development is her rendition of Lennon & McCartney's "Let It Be," which has a Brad Mehldau-esque feel to it. It's an influence that Lee readily acknowledges: "That's true. That arrangement definitely has some Brad Mehldau influence. He was one of my biggest inspirations at that time. He's an amazing pianist. I still love Brad Mehldau. Who doesn't? These days all the piano players are influenced by him. Everyone."

Though Lee writes nearly all-original material for JFSA, when it comes to her acoustic ensembles she doesn't feel bound by any necessity to perform only her own compositions. It seems to be more of a mood thing that dictates her set lists: "It's hard to say. It moves around," Lee admits. "I still love playing standards. When I play a club gig I still play a lot of jazz standards but I definitely want to write my own tunes."

Whilst Lee turned her back years ago on a classical music career her deep love of the music still strongly influences her: "I'm very into Ravel. I love his harmony. If I write new music for myself I want to write something like that. Right now I can't do that—maybe I need to study more. I haven't written any music for a while. I've been practicing and trying to figure out what I hear in my head and it's hard to find."

Lee, however, is in no rush to record just for the sake of it. The music has to be right: "I definitely want to write some new music but I want to write something worthwhile," Lee affirms. I'm not like those guys who write a new tune every day."

As for Lee's favorite Korean musicians, former JSFA drummer Sangmin Lee immediately springs to her lips. And on piano she cites one of her former teachers at Dongduk Women's University, pianist Ming Kim, who studied at both Berklee and the New England Conservatory: "His piano playing is something different," Lee says. "His playing tells a tale. He's a very talented pianist—a great jazz pianist, but he doesn't play a lot of jazz. When he returned to Korea there were not too many good Korean jazz musicians. He was too good for Korean jazz scene," Lee says laughing. His album sold a million copies and he became a celebrity. He's one of my all-time favorite piano players."

In the eight years since Lee returned to Korea Lee has witnessed significant changes in the Korean jazz scene: "Oh yeah, definitely a big change," she confirms. "When I first studied in Korea there were not many Korean jazz musicians. If you played jazz everybody knew you because the community was so small; ten pianists altogether, ten bassists altogether. Once you could play you could have a lot of gigs. When I came back from studying in the United the States there were more jazz musicians who had already finished their studies in the States and had come home.

"Starting from that generation in Korea we had jazz schools—we say Applied Music Department—a lot of them opened in Korea. It was like a boom. Because there were many jazz programs and many schools a lot of younger students started playing jazz and a lot more of them started going to the United States to study jazz further. Jazz became big for a lot of musicians."

More schools; more jazz programs; greater numbers of Koreans studying in America then returning home; one of the biggest jazz festivals in the world and more and more Korean jazz musicians playing abroad. It sounds as if Korean jazz is in the ascendancy but Lee adds a cautionary note: "Yes, but the audiences in Korea are getting smaller. Life is so tough, who wants to listen to listen to serious jazz? You cannot really chill to serious music," Lee reflects, bemoaning a culture that embraces disposable, manufactured pop music.

"It's very sad," she continues. "It's a kind of weird situation here in Korea right now where we have too many musicians but no venues, no concerts, no audience. If we make a jazz CD on average it sells is maybe one hundred copies. It's pretty bad actually."

It's not an unfamiliar story to many jazz musicians elsewhere in the world and it underlines the importance of marketing yourself, something that Lee admits is one of her weak points: "I don't have any agency promoting me so me and my husband are doing all the work. My husband is helping a lot in trying to reach out to more people. I've never been a promoter so I'm pretty bad at that. I'm not good at communicating with people and I realize I should be to play more. You have to promote yourself a lot."

For the immediate future Lee's focus is on writing new music and playing with JSFA wherever they can secure gigs: "For now, JSFA is my main concern, "she says. "I have a lot of inspiration from people like [pianist] Robert Glasper and this younger generation of jazz musicians all over the world. They try different things and I want to try different things too. I want to play more and try more. We'll see what happens. I'm excited these days."

Photo Credit

Courtesy of Joseph H.Bae.

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