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Producer Sun Chung: Always Listening for a Story

Producer Sun Chung: Always Listening for a Story

Courtesy Arianna Tae Cimarosti

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I like putting together projects where the recording process is a discovery for everyone. Even though the musicians have been carefully selected, one cannot foresee the final result. It’s really a beautiful thing...
—Sun Chung
On April 28, 2021, a quiet masterpiece marked the end of an era—and the beginning of another. Hanamichi was to be the last studio recording of Japanese pianist Masabumi Kikuchi, who died in 2015, two years after its creation. And yet, while its sweeter overtones struck balance in the bitterness of his absence, the album marked the birth of Red Hook Records, an independent label run by producer Sun Chung. Kikuchi's uncanny ability to tell a story was an organic match for Chung's own skills in that regard, each leveraging the power of his respective instrument in a search for narrative possibilities. In its final form, Hanamichi gifted six tracks to listeners, and in 2025, we will be treated to another when a deluxe version is released to commemorate the 10th year of Kikuchi's passing. With an extra 45 minutes of music to savor, it's sure to put the current selection into greater perspective.

Red Hook's second release, Two Centuries, was released in October of 2022 and features Wadada Leo Smith on trumpet, Andrew Cyrille on drums, and Qasim Naqvi on modular synth. In it, we can already hear a sense of identity forming in Chung's ear for new languages born of familiar grammars (if not also the reverse). Future productions to look forward to include such luminaries as Jason Moran, Marcus Gilmore, Amina Claudine Myers, Bill Frisell, Kit Downes, and BlankFor.ms. In the unprecedented combinations thereof are grains of possibility waiting to be rounded into sonic pearls. Such processes are what Red Hook is all about, saying only what needs to be said—nothing more, nothing less. Chung's philosophy is easy to dream about but difficult to realize in the waking world. And yet, he has succeeded with a lucidity honed during his eight-year tenure as an assistant producer for ECM Records.

Here, Chung discusses the paths that led him to where he is now and those leading to where he is going.

All About Jazz: For those unfamiliar with your work, can you tell us a little about your background in music production?

Sun Chung: I grew up in France as part of a musical family. My father [Myung Whun Chung] is a classical conductor and pianist. He and his siblings, a violinist and cellist, set the tone for Korean classical musicians. So, of course, music was around me all the time. Some of my fondest memories as a child were waking up in the morning and listening to my father practicing at the piano. I don't think I can concretely say how that influenced me, but it was certainly there. I had many discussions about music with my father and went to a lot of his performances.

AAJ: And when did you discover jazz?

SC: Around 13 or 14. I was already listening to everything from classical to alternative rock. That was also when I picked up the guitar. I had it in mind to do that as a career, even at that young age. I played the guitar very seriously for many years and studied at The New School in New York [from 2002 to 2006]. But, sooner or later, I realized that I just didn't enjoy performing. I always thought it was just something I had to get used to and would get over eventually. Somehow, I never did. So, I started my master's in composition at New England Conservatory [from 2008 to 2009]. That was, in itself, a much healthier experience. It was also a smaller program, which made me feel more special. But I only stayed there a year because I moved to Red Hook and, subsequently, got the job at ECM. Ultimately, my path to becoming a music producer was very natural. I pretty much did all the necessary things for that career without being aware I was doing them. This is where I feel most at home.

AAJ: Is that because it happened organically over time rather than in response to expectations or pressure?

SC: For sure, that plays a big role. Practically speaking, though, I'm just better at being a producer.

AAJ: Did your decision to strike out on your own and create Red Hook Records also result from a natural progression of events, or was there a particular catalyst that set you on that path?

SC: Both, I'd say. I was with ECM for almost 10 years. It was an incredible experience, and without it, my development as a producer would have taken at least twice as long. Being in the studio with Manfred Eicher and seeing what he was doing was an invaluable learning experience that I would compare to a young musician apprenticing with a master's band. It's one of those mentorships that almost don't exist anymore in the professional world, especially in the production field, though maybe it's different in the pop sphere. One learns things through these lived experiences that cannot be taught in a classroom.

AAJ: And what was the chain of events that brought you to ECM?

SC: Actually, that has something to do with why I call my record label Red Hook, which is the part of Brooklyn I lived in during my most musically formative years. I moved there for the main purpose of living next to Ben Street. I was at his house almost daily for two or three years. His place was a self-made community for musicians. Aaron Parks, David Virelles, and many others would be there. We spent a lot of time sitting around the table, listening to music, drinking natural wine, and just talking about what kind of music we liked, our musical tastes, and different concepts. That was a mind-opener for me. So the record label is an homage to that time.

AAJ: So, it's not just the place but also the people and the experiences that made the place important for you.

SC: Absolutely. And after a while, Ben got to know that I was interested in production. He had a session with Billy Hart for ECM and invited me. That's how I met Manfred. He and I got along well from the beginning, and the rest developed from there.

AAJ: And when did you start thinking about a label of your own?

SC: Those first five or six years at ECM were a learning phase during which I absorbed everything I could. But, after a while, I had this itch to do more productions on my own.

AAJ: So, let's talk a bit about your first Red Hook production with Masabumi Kikuchi. How did that come about?

SC: I first met Masabumi at Village Vanguard, where he was playing in one of Paul Motian's bands. I think it was 2011. It was totally by chance. I was taken aback by Masabumi's introductions. They were so beautiful—almost like the way Miles Davis phrased melodies, only on the piano. I introduced myself after the gig. Somehow, we got along. Maybe it was because we both had stubborn personalities, but whatever it was, we became friends. I visited his loft in Chelsea, helped him with groceries, and took him out to restaurants on account of his health issues. As a lung cancer survivor, he was always on heavy pain medications, which severely impacted his short-term memory.

AAJ: What did it mean to you to release his last album as your first for the new label? Obviously, you were making an artistic statement for him, but you were also making an artistic statement for yourself.

SC: Right. I guess the primary factor is always the music itself. But I find it also quite poignant that it was his last recording, as it was at the same time our first release. I just wish Masabumi would have been alive to see the final product.

AAJ: To me, the album has such a rich narrative structure, even if that story will read differently for every listener, as it allows freedom within a certain structure to fill in those pieces.

SC: Sequencing an album is a funny thing. It's so subjective. Everybody would do it differently. It took me about a year to put Hanamichi into its final form.

AAJ: Does Red Hook have an identity already?

SC: I would say it has an identity regarding the productions that have been planned and those in different stages of completion. If we were just to base it on two records, it wouldn't be possible. But with the upcoming ones, there will start to be a structure pretty soon.

AAJ: And do you have words for that structure yet? Or is it still forming in your mind?

SC: A sense of structure is definitely there. I would never have started a record label without this very strong ideal to find a sonic identity. It seems self-defeating to start a record label without that, and all the record labels I admire have it. In our case, while I do have some more specific musical ideas as well as ideals, I don't have a specific predetermined sound in my head. And even if I did, I do not think I would want to keep on trying to replicate that same sound over and over. The process of discovery through musical exploration is essential to me, whether during the pre-production, tracking, or post-production stage. My ear and sense of aesthetics serve as guides. In some ways, maybe I am trying to transcend the structures of styles, even though styles are always present in one form or another, as they are built within a musician, but in our productions, I try to not place style and genre at the forefront. I'd like to think that sonic exploration fulfills that role. Over time, certain sonic characteristics will take shape and become a thread that will weave through all the albums of Red Hook.

All our projects are created from the ground up in the sense that we assemble new groups but also that our musical direction is constantly challenged so that we are sure there will always be this sense of exploration. In other words, rather than coming from the angle of recording within a specific genre, I prefer to build a project from scratch and see how it grows organically while attending to the music's specific needs at that moment. The process usually starts by finding a musician to whom I am particularly drawn and building a project around them. I listen for things, like how a musician reacts to sound, and try to sense how freely music flows through them. This is why I love working with masters such as Wadada Leo Smith because the path from emotion to sound is so direct. This, in turn, leads to a thought process of putting a group together. That is done by thinking about how certain musicians might communicate with the core through matching sounds, energy, and emotions.

I like putting together projects where the recording process is a discovery for everyone. Even though the musicians have been carefully selected, one cannot foresee the final result. It's really a beautiful thing to hear a group of musicians who don't necessarily come from the same background but have a common mastery of sound and energy. To hear them creating something totally new (maybe not in style but definitely in its story) on those terms is quite exhilarating.

AAJ: Do you feel like you're consciously putting a lot of yourself into your work, or are you also trying to separate yourself in a sense— because, as you said, it's about the music? How do you negotiate that balance between your self-avowed stubbornness and letting the magic happen?

SC: That's a good question and something I'd probably have to think about. Instinctually, I'd say the two go hand in hand because I don't really consider this job to be a job or this work to be work. It's something I just do. Every day, I am trying to figure out what sounds go well together, listening, trying to discover new music, and so on. So, yes, the search and discovery of new music affect my daily life. It's very nourishing for me. In regards to my stubbornness, it's something that I've struggled with, but as the years progress, I've become much more flexible in letting the process take center stage and knowing better when to intervene.

AAJ: When you're working on a recording session—and maybe we can return to Two Centuries as an example—I imagine there are many things that surprise you in the moment while you're listening to them perform. But I'm also wondering whether there are things that surprise you in post-production when you're listening to it over and over, crafting and shaping it. What kinds of discoveries happen in that process?

SC: The bulk of the work and discovery is more in the pre-production and tracking stages. Once mixing starts, I already have a pretty good idea of what is there. At that point, I already have this diamond, and mixing is more like polishing it. That being said, there still are elements of discovery in post-production—for example, in the sequencing process. That was the case with Two Centuries as well. I was most intrigued by the beauty of the electronic parts Qasim came up with, as well the incredible spontaneous musical reactions of Wadada and Andrew during tracking.

AAJ: What would you say has delighted you the most in the productions you've done so far at any point in the process?

SC: There's something new to learn in every production. Given that I've worked a lot with musicians like Andrew and Bill at this point, you might think it would become a routine thing. That's never been the case since a story is always told with different inflections. So I'd say the aspect I enjoy the most is experiencing these unique moments of creation and hearing them come to life during tracking.

AAJ: What has been some of the most meaningful feedback that you've received, either from the musicians themselves or from listeners?

SC: I look forward to developing relationships with the musicians. Seeing that the musicians are happy with a project is an important accomplishment for me. I want them to be proud and satisfied with the final outcome. For instance, during the Masabumi session, there were many moments he was doubtful, especially before the session. So, it was quite meaningful to hear how much he liked the music after listening to it a few weeks after the session. It's a journey we created together.

AAJ: Because, in a sense, you were telling his story through the production, right?

SC: Red Hook is only helping these musicians shape their narratives.

AAJ: On that note, do you think a lot about the metaphysical aspects of working on an album? And how much does that play into your approach?

SC: The reason I do music is for those spiritual, intangible elements. I don't think I know how to define it. I don't even know if I want to define it. I really like this feeling of not knowing, just trusting my instincts. And that is how I approach production, in a very exploratory manner.

AAJ: Is Red Hook a label that will always be searching, completely open to whatever will happen?

SC: Absolutely. Musical exploration is at the forefront of Red Hook's ideals.

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