Review: Youn Sun Nah and Ulf Wakenius, something special and inventive

05:00 AM, Jun 28, 2013

Ulf Wakenius and Youn Sun Nah (Photo provided by XRIJF)/


Written By Jeff Spevak | Staff music critic

From the opening notes — coming from an electric thumb piano, of all things — and her simple, lilting delivery of “My Favorite Things,” it was clear that Youn Sun Nah was going to be something special. At the close of her 60-minute first set Friday night with guitarist Ulf Wakenius, the longest, most-thunderous applause I’ve seen in the first eight days of the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival were affirmation that the South Korean singer’s set was just that.

More coverage: Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival

And by the comments from the crowd leaving the packed Lutheran Church of the Reformation, many of these veteran jazz fest fans considered it the finest show they’d seen at the event in years. Just four songs into her set, Nah and Wakenius were awarded with a standing ovation. Where do you go from there?

Nah’s sultry, charming self-accompaniment on thumb piano — I’m still laughing how she got away with it — saw her joined by Wakenius for the rest of the set, starting with a slow, hypnotic, dramatic reading of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” the same haunting number recorded by Johnny Cash near the end of his career. “I will make you … hurt,” she sang sorrowfully — then a flash of anger on the same line near the end of the song, before returning to sorrow. In that scant moment of defiance, Nah was suggesting this woman might not take this hurt and go quietly.

Between songs, Nah spoke in a charming, meek voice, as though she was stunned by the attention. She shouldn’t be. She’s a big star in South Korea and a growing one in Europe.

Nothing was hurried; Nah and Wakenius lingered over every note. She surprised by pulling out a kazoo, managing to seem sassy, not campy. Nah was a sweeping marvel of faux-operatic vocalese, creating sounds like no other singer in this singer-flooded 12th annual event. Just her breathing, and her sighs, carried the same weight as entire lines of lyrics. On Nat King Cole’s “Calypso Blues,” words failed Nah as she gave way to evocative groans, whispers and theremin whoops. She accompanied much of this scat singing, and there was a lot of it, with dance-like hand movements — delivering pantomimes of song.

The two of them closed what Nah described as “a Korean blues,” which she sang in Korean, by allowing the song to fade away, note by note, until they finally couldn’t be heard in the absolutely pin-drop silent church.

The arrangements were so unpredictable that at times the audience didn’t know how to react. A song ended and there was a half-beat of silence, the crowd uncertain that it really was over. Indeed, Wakenius’ harrowing composition “Breakfast in Baghdad” did seem to be over when the crowd broke into applause before seeing that the guitarist was holding up a finger of caution: No, they were not done.

Wakenius, a Norwegian who played with Oscar Peterson for the last decade of the pianist’s career, was the perfect match for Nah. He offered many subtle highlights that first set, but his final solo in “Breakfast in Baghdad” was a tour de force of showmanship: A simmering cacophony of notes, building, building, led to Wakenius picking up his plastic water bottle and pounding the acoustic guitar strings, creating kind of an artillery, then flinging the bottle high overhead to the back of the stage like it was a mortar shell. OK, now they were done.

Today’s jazz haiku

Silence between words

fluttering heartbreak, like birds

mountain clouds of grace

Cat in the hat

Gregory Porter is very, very close to being the next Lou Rawls. Although a damaged shoulder ended his college football career, Porter remains a hulking presence onstage and connects well with the crowd, leading Kilbourn Hall in rhythmic hand clapping, finger snapping and some backing vocals. He was at his best with the ballads, when his voice went from tender assurance to soaring, with the Johnny Mercer/Hoagy Carmichael standard “Skylark.” But his voice also delivers on the uptempo drive of “On My Way to Harlem,” the gospel of “Liquid Spirit” and the chain-gang “Work Song” Of Oscar Brown Jr. He waxed philosophical while introducing his song “Painted on Canvas,” noting “everyone should be allowed to display the canvas of their lives.”

Porter is also a cool cat in the hat, with a close-fitting stocking on his head topped by a black Kangol cap.