Youn Sun Nah plays Nordic Jazz Now series
05:00 AM, Jun 23, 2013
YOUN SUN NAH
Jeff Spevak predicts that South Koreas Youn Sun Nah will be most-talked-about performer at this years festival. See her with Ulf Wakenius, part of the Nordic Jazz Now series, at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Friday at Lutheran Church of the Reformation, 111 N. Chestnut St. Tickets are $20 cash at the door or free with a club pass.
This is Youn Sun Nah’s first interview with an American journalist. Near the end of the conversation, she apologizes. She thinks she’s done poorly. But that is not the case, as you will see: She was great.
More greatness is to come: Following her show Friday at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation, Nah will be the most-talked-about performer at this year’s Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival.
It is inevitable. Her voice is stunning, her emotional and creative interpretations of jazz standards such as “My Favorite Things” and the Korean tradition folk song “Arirang” are like opening a window to allow in a summer breeze.
Searching through her catalog, we see that Nah ventures into metal classics with her delicate, confident interpretations of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” and Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.” There are originals as well: her delightfully arrhythmic,frantic tribute to impulse eating, “Pancake.” And she’ll be accompanied by a Norwegian guitarist, Ulf Wakenius, who was in Oscar Peterson’s band for most of the final decade of his career. Nah’s stratospheric scat singing on Wakenius’ “Breakfast in Baghdad” will have even jazz snobs who think they have heard it all leaping from the church balcony. It is inevitable.
“Music is like food,” Nah says. “We have to eat not only one kind of food, you have to taste and try and eat everything.” She is a buffet. Randy Newman, Sergio Mendes, Carla Bley and Nat King Cole. Stan Jones’ “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” Tom Waits’ “Jockey Full of Bourbon.”
It’s almost as if Nah doesn’t know what she’s doing. Maybe that’s why her music is so strikingly singular.
“I’m very happy to be able to be a jazz singer,” she says, with one modest caveat. “I don’t know if what I’m doing could be called jazz.”
She has been a star for a few years in her native South Korea, and more recently has been embraced by the European jazz scene, particularly in Paris. There, Nah studied jazz, including the vocal-driven chanson style; Edith Piaf is perhaps the best-known example. But her exposure to American audiences has been limited. Just two brief trips here.
“I was 26 when I decided to become a musician, quite late,” says Nah, who’s now 43. “My parents are musicians, so I was exposed to a variety of music. But I never thought I could one day be a singer.”
Instead, in college Nah studied literature, a major that does not exactly explode with job opportunities. She was working in marketing for a fashion company when she took a role in a musical comedy. “I asked a musician friend about jazz,” Nah says. ” ‘What is jazz?’ He said, ‘Jazz is the root of all pop music. If you study jazz, you can sing anything.’ I said, ‘Wow, that sounds interesting.’ “
The leap is a long one from “Wow, sounds interesting” to mastering the art. “It was too hard the first year,” Nah says. “I had never listened to jazz. I didn’t have any idea about this style of music. We were to learn how to sing jazz standards, and I tried to imitate them. I found myself how can I say? it sounds fake. I have a soprano voice. I tried to have a husky, deep voice. I couldn’t have it. … I wanted to give up.”
Nah was finally set on the right road. “My professor told me, ‘You can do jazz with your own voice,’ ” she says.
“I don’t know if it’s good,” she admits with uncertainty. “I’m still training my voice.”
It is good, very good. Listen to “Soundless Bye,” from her new album Lento, and hear Nah’s sighs that sound like broken-hearted cries.
She has not sought comfort in familiarity. One exception is “Arirang,” which Nah helpfully sings in English. She calls it “as important as the national anthem. All the Korean people know this song. It is about the soul of Korea. Joy. Sorrow and happiness. It’s about love.”
Sentiments that transcend nearly all borders, but not the closest: North Korea. Nah grew up in Seoul, but North Korea is where her family’s roots lie. Nah’s grandmother crossed over into South Korea with her three sons in the early 1950s; Nah’s grandfather followed later. But in the decades since the Korean War, North Korea’s belligerent world position has kept those crossings limited, and dangerous.
“It’s the only country we can’t go to,” Nah says. “I have some cousins I’ve never met. I don’t even know if they exist anymore. We have to accept the situation. It’s sad to hear the tense situation now, but we are still keeping calm.”
Music often has a difficult time crossing the borders not only of North Korea, but of South Korea as well. “It is very sad that we can’t hear the beautiful pop tunes on the radio,” Nah says. “Most of the time it’s Korean pop. I was a kind of sponge as I started studying music. I discovered Tom Waits in France.
“I try to listen to all different kinds of music. Paris is like New York. I can meet many foreign musicians from all over the world and get a chance to play with them. People who have different musical interests from different countries. I just tried anything. And I know I still have a lot of different types of styles I don’t know yet.”
Some music kicks down the barricades. “My brother is a great fan of Metallica,” Nah says. So she was somewhat familiar with “Enter Sandman,” a song that Wakenius suggested might be a fit for her unrelentingly experimental vocals.
“I tried to search for an alternate version that features a female vocalist,” Nah says. “There wasn’t one. I was very afraid to try this famous song. I didn’t want to be killed by the Metallica fans. The funny thing is now, someone told me this version is on the fan sites of Metallica.”
For Nah, all music passes through the same filter. So she opens her 2010 album, Same Girl, with “My Favorite Things,” written by two composers known the world over, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Following it is the stunning “My Name is Carnival,” her voice trilling and soaring over Wakenius’ acoustic guitar. That piece was written by a virtually forgotten musician, Jackson C. Frank.
“I bought his album in France,” Nah says. “I wanted to buy another one, and I discovered he only recorded one album.”
Nah read up on Frank, and now she is teaching us about our own western music. Raised in Cheektowaga (and badly burned in an elementary school boiler explosion that killed 15 of his fellow students), Frank lived in London in the ’60s with the then-unknown duo of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. Simon produced Frank’s first album, but stage fright and depression left him as a homeless, often institutionalized drifter for years. When Frank died in 1999, one 34-year-old record album, considered a cult classic by the folk crowd, was all he left behind.
“Just one album, like a diamond,” Nah says. “So beautiful. Quite tragic.”