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Youn Sun Nah: Seoul to Soul

Ian Patterson By

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Since she moved to Paris in 1995, Korean jazz singer Youn Sun Nah has won over French and Korean audiences alike with her rather special voice; dramatic, sensuous and bluesy, it is a tantalizing cross between Hacke Bjorksten and Melody Gardot. Hers is a jazz soul.

For years, she led the Youn Sun Nah 5Tet and has recorded a half-dozen CDs. The most recent, Voyage (ACT, 2009), sees her backed by some of Europe's finest jazz musicians, including Ulf Wakenius, Lars Danielsson and Mathias Eick. The French government honored her with a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres award in recognition of her contribution to the arts, and she is beginning to attract attention beyond her adopted country (she made her London debut at the Vortex in May 2009)—not bad for someone who, just before leaving Seoul for Paris in '95, asked a friend, "What is jazz?"

Despite coming from a musical background—her mother is a classically trained musical actress, and her father is a conductor—Sun Nah was not groomed to follow in her parents' footsteps. She wound up working in the fashion industry after graduating. The route to her present status as a revered jazz singer in France has surprised Nah. "Even though my parents are classical musicians, I never thought that one day I could be a professional singer—a jazz singer," she explains. "My parents gave me the opportunity to hear a variety of music. They helped me a lot. Maybe unconsciously I trained my ear, so I'm so grateful."

Disillusioned with her fashion, job Sun Nah quit and followed the advice of a musician friend who recognized her singing talent and suggested that she apply for a role in a comedy musical. Her audition was successful, though this was a bit unexpected. "I don't know why I got the role; I didn't have any special training before as a musical actress," Sun Nah says. Nevertheless, Nah performed in three musical comedies, and the experience gave her a certain amount of belief in her abilities. "After that, I thought maybe I could be a professional singer, but I didn't know what kind of music I could do. I asked one of my musician friends, a Korean bassist, and he told me that it was too late to be a classical singer because I was too old, and he suggested jazz. I asked him what jazz was, and he told me it is the root of popular music. 'Oh—sounds interesting,' I thought, 'Yeah, maybe I can do that,'" Nah relates, laughing at the memory.

"I was very naïve, and if I had known what jazz was maybe I would never have started," she says. "But I really liked French chanson, and I decided to go to France to study both."

Youn Sun NahBefore arriving in France, the singer had not listened to jazz, which is not entirely surprising given the lack of exposure to the music in Korea. In Paris, she was introduced to the music of Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. This was a revelatory and somewhat intimidating experience that had a profound impact on Sun Nah, as she vividly recalls: "It was unbelievable, unimaginable! They all had husky, deep, low voices, so I thought jazz was not for me. I mentioned to my teachers that maybe I should stop, but they laughed at me and said: 'Youn, you can sing with your own voice.' Really?"

Recognizing that Sun Nah was daunted by the prowess of three of jazz's legendary singers, her teachers gave her records by Norma Winstone, Sidsel Endresen and Mari Boine. This exposure to mere mortal singers was a turning point. "These contemporary jazz singers gave me a lot of encouragement to pursue singing. Even though I love Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, I could never do the kind of things they've already done. So, I'm doing my stuff, trying to do my own thing," Sun Nah says.

Doing her own thing has characterized Sun Nah's career to date. She formed a band in '96 with college classmates and gradually built a reputation in the capital and beyond, drawing the attention of French label Blue Note, who offered her a seven-year deal. Though most artists would give an arm and a leg for such a contract, Sun Nah declined the offer.

"They wanted me to do a different thing and to have more influence over my music; I didn't want that," she says. "What I wanted most was musical freedom. That doesn't mean that they tried to force me to sing music I didn't like—just at that time, I really wanted to do something different.

"It was interesting playing with the band, but I wanted to have my own thing. So I told them maybe it was time to stop," she says of striking out on her own. "Maybe one day we can play together again, but I want to have a kind of pause and do different things." An album recorded by the band is still at the mixing stage and is awaiting release, but Sun Nah is currently drawn by other inspiration. A meeting with Wakenius led to Voyage and a new direction in her singing career. "I met Ulf around three years ago in Korea," Sun Nah explains, "and it was he who proposed me to record the album. In the beginning, he wanted us to record only as a duo, but he didn't have time to take care of everything, and I didn't have time, either, so I invited Danielsson, the producer, because I'd admired him for a long time. It's really wonderful how he writes. He's a great musician."

Besides producing Voyage, Danielsson plays bass and cello and provides one song, "The Linden," which was originally titled "Asta" and written as an arrangement for an orchestra. This version of the tune appeared on Libera Me (ACT, 2004). It was Wakenius who suggested Sun Nah sing the song, and she agreed. "I asked Lars if I could do this," she says, "and he told me he had lyrics for it. It had never been sung before by any singer. I hope it sounds OK." "The Linden" is one of the highlights of Voyage and is transformed by Sun Nah, whose vocals inject some of the haunting quality of Kate Bush into a highly atmospheric piece.

Sun Nah wanted to add a trumpet sound to some of the tracks, and J.J. In, founder and director of the Jarasum Jazz Festival, suggested Eick, whose band had played at In's festival in Korea. Eick lends his instantly recognizable trumpet sound to a couple of tracks on Voyage, and he has toured with Sun Nah in a duo setting since her album Memory Lane (Seoul Records, 2007), much to Sun Nah's delight. "It was really great touring with him in Korea. Mathias is a multi-instrumentalist. When we play an up-tempo tune, he can start with bass and record it using loops, and then he can put the Rhodes on it, and then add percussion and play some trumpet sounds," she says. "He can do everything."

In recent years however, Wakenius has been Sun Nah's more habitual duo partner, and there is a special chemistry between the two. Whether accompanied by guitar or trumpet, the singer sees no need to expand the duo at present. "I prefer a small format. It depends a little on mood; sometimes I want to play with a big band," she says. "When I play with a larger band, we can try out different musical aspects and have a discussion, but I feel more comfortable in a duo setting—you create a musical dialogue with the other musician."

There is plenty of intimate musical dialogue on Voyage—no more so than on "Calypso Blues," a wonderful recreation of a Nat "King" Cole song that features Sun Nah at her most dynamic, accompanied by the irresistible swing of Danielsson's double-bass. "The first time I heard [the song], I fell in love immediately," Nah recalls. "I found this tune on YouTube; it's simple, but the groove was really wonderful, so I wanted to try." It is a sublime rendition of a song that laments the plight of the West Indian migrant to the USA and basks in the nostalgia of the homeland:

"In Trinidad, one dollar buy papaya juice, banana pie, six coconut, three female goats an' plenty fish to fill de boat, one bushel bread, one barrel wine, an' all de town she come to dine, but here is bad one dollar buy cup of coffee, ham on rye."

Sun Nah molds the lyrics to her voice, caressing them, exhaling them like a sigh, and in one climactic moment, reaching a falsetto as powerful as it is surprising. It is a captivating performance and serves as a reminder not only of Cole's tremendous talent as a songwriter but also of his enduring influence.

Sun Nah's rendition of "Shenandoah" is also captivating; tackling this classic of the American songbook may seem like a carefully thought out piece of marketing to break through to an American market, but that couldn't be further from the truth. "I can't remember exactly when I first listened to this song," Nah explains, "but I think I was four years old or something. At that time, my father was, and still is, the conductor of the Korean national choir, and I was at one of his concerts where he arranged 'Shenandoah' for a male voice choir. I remember when I heard it, the melody touched me, and I think I cried. I couldn't understand the lyrics, and I didn't know what this Shenandoah was, but I can say this song has been with me from my childhood."

"I hummed this song for more than 30 years, 35 years," she continues. "I asked Ulf what he thought about putting this song on the album, and he thought it was a good idea, as he loved it too."

Wakenius has clearly been instrumental in the realization of Voyage, and there already are plans for another recording with Nah commencing from the duo format with which they have toured extensively. His influence is also steering Nah to explore new areas.

"Ulf is very interested in Korean traditional music," Nah explains, "and we are trying to arrange Korean traditional music in jazz style. We have about three traditional Korean songs arranged in jazz style. Frankly speaking, I don't know Korean traditional music very well. It's very important for me because I hadn't sung in Korean for a long time, so now I have the joy of singing in Korean as well. I like to sing in different languages. It gives me a different feeling. It's not only about the content; each language has its own unique aura. When I sing bossa, Portuguese sounds perfect. "

Scat is another language in which Nah excels. On Voyage, she scats her way impressively through Egberto Gismonti's classic "Frevo," and it is a tune which allows her to improvise.

"When I sing live, I try to improvise a little bit, but not too much. When I played with the French quintet, most of the tunes were quite free, so I had more space to improvise, but now less than before."

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