Korean saxophonist Sungjae Son founded the Near East Quartet with the goal to form a bridge between traditional Korean music and American jazz. Korean music's traditional slow rhythmic feel is not immediately compatible with the regular rhythms of jazzso it was up to the quartet's members to find a common ground. They followed different paths individually: Son and guitarist Suwuk Chung both studied in the United States, but at the time Son was a bebopper, while Chung was into fusion and Third Stream music. Drummer Soojin Suh (who also studied in the United States) made a reputation in Korea as a creative contemporary jazz player. Only vocalist/percussionist Yulhee Kim comes directly out of traditional Korean music performance.
Opener "Ewah" features, big overdriven guitar with delay (reminiscent of ECM label mate Jakob Bro), sometimes in unison with the leader's tenor saxophone. The rubato rhythm sounds like many recordings on the label, but "Mot" makes the traditional Korean connection more explicit. The first of three Korean traditional songs in the set, it is a gentle ballad which centers around Kim's delicate vocal. "Baram" is not traditional, but Son sets lyrics from the Korean pansori storytelling tradition (as he also does on closer "Jinyang"). The atmospheric guitar and bass clarinet serve mainly as accompaniment: here as elsewhere on the album, the emphasis is on the ensemble. And there is no distinction between the sound of the traditional material and Son's compositions. Like the recent Shinya Fukumori Trio album For 2 Akis (ECM, 2018), the fusion between jazz improvisation and non-Western music is natural and complete.
"Galggabuda" is another traditional tune, but it includes both a tenor saxophone opening theme and a brief, contemplative solo. "Garam" finds Chung playing chordal figures without electronics to accompany Son's gentle tenor saxophonethen taking an electronic solo at the end with more big echo swells. "Pa:do" (the last of the traditionals) begins with almost heavy metal guitar chords. Then a regular drum beat is joined by rhythm guitar, resulting in the most conventionally rhythmic music on the album. So while the sound is consistent, there is variety. And a unique blend of traditional Korean music with contemporary jazz: one which becomes more enthralling with each listen.
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