Hyeseon Hong Jazz Orchestra ‘EE-YA-GI’ (MAMA) 4/5

Hyeseon Hong is a native of Seoul, South Korea. A Jazz arranger and composer, she has been living in New York now for several years, and “EE-YA-GI” is her debut album. Blending Korean and Western cultures, together with her Jazz orchestra she successfully mixes elements of classical music, modern big band jazz and traditional Korean music to create a compelling and rich tapestry of sound.

This project grew from a jazz orchestra rehearsal that Hong leads. The orchestra meets regularly and has grown steadily over the years. The album features an 18 piece orchestra comprising some of the finest musicians in New York. As an admirer of Maria Schneider’s music, Hong was thrilled to have two of Schneider’s leading performers join her for this recording. Acclaimed musicians, saxophonist Rich Perry and trumpeter Ingrid Jensen are featured performers throughout the session.

“EE-YA-GI” means “stories” in Korean, and each of the seven compositions are self-contained stories. Although many of the tunes are inspired by traditional Korean stories, the resulting music is perhaps surprisingly American-sounding. There are natural elements of cross-cultural themes within the music itself, but overall one might think Hong is more of a native New Yorker than a native Korean. That said, one can’t fault the skill and depth of the whole project, with very strong compositions at times exuding beauty, elegance and no shortage of excitement.

This engagingly expansive and original album begins with “Harvest Dance: Story of Thanksgiving”, a piece inspired by a traditional Korean rhythm played by farmers who performed it to stimulate the flow of heavenly and terrestrial energies in hopes of a good harvest. One of the strengths of the recording is the quality of the soloing. Always in keeping with the melodic mood of the music, the performances are extremely strong from all involved. “Friends or lovers: story of youth battling with love” is a swing tune that captures well the energy and complexities of youthful love. There’s a distinctive Latin flavour to “Para Mi Amigo Distante: Story of long lost friends”, whilst “Boat Song: Story of my heritage” is a richly rewarding tune that plays on lovely melodic folk traditions. “Disappearing in Foam: Story of girlhood” is based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, and “Trash Digging Queen: Story of Nica the dog”, is one of my favourite tracks on the album, being enjoyably playful and very inventive. “Love Story: Story of first love” is warm and graceful and makes for a soft, thoughtful end to the album.

Whilst Hong’s writing is solidly based on the big band swing tradition, she manages to create a modern twist here, and this is an enticingly colourful and energetic debut.

Mike Gates