Yoosun Nam, South Korean alto saxophonist and composer, has released a debut album entitled Light of the City, named for the spirit and energy she feels in her new home. She can be seen performing at jazz clubs in Manhattan as a leader of her own group, along with nearby places like ShapeShifter Lab in Brooklyn.
Her musical history begins at an early age, with her studying classical, Korean traditional, pop and funk genres. At nine, she began classical piano and voice lessons. Even after winning awards for her singing voice, once she discovered jazz as a teenager she focused on improvisational expression, with a saxophone being her new favorite from age 19. This discovery led her to switch course between two Seoul universities to study music, and subsequently receive another award, this time at the Applied Music department of Seoul Institute of the Arts. She moved on to graduate from Berklee.
On to the disc. The playful opening riff is refreshing, I think. Immediately I hear what sounds like the guitarist turning the rate knob on some modulation up and down to intriguing effect. Neat little key changes and the masterful superimposition of chords by the pianist make me pay attention. The drummer’s on it. This one’s for real!
For a debut recording, the result here is one that is clearly the product of a musician with quality time spent and an already-well-developed voice. The nice warm recorded sound of the album combined with the highly inventive, collective playing really transports me back to the classic room-sounding recordings we all know and love.
The title track’s breezy feel was a pleasant surprise. Once the tune was well underway though, the compositional twists and stops made me realize what a gem this more straight-ahead affair might be for many fusion fans. The unexpected. The ‘rocking’, if you will, in the context of sax-drums-piano-guitar-bass. The melodies are both agile and searching. I’m struck by the timing, tone and vibrato of the sax.
Yoosun can leap from the athletic and pyrotechnic to the lyrical and sublime; nothing stale here. She says, “although playing a wind instrument is more difficult for me than men, both physically and in terms of technique, I always work hard to perform flawlessly”. She excels, in a reminder of just how physical a wind instrument can be and, as it turns out, of how humble some are.
Lots of nice touches are revealed with repeated listening: like how the dual horns (with Chris Cheek) on several tracks come in at just the right time and are so well-arranged, or how the fades happen when it seems they should, or that the cymbal work and piano runs and all those things we love about synchronous improvisation occur with ease and authority the way they do. Not to mention the uniqueness of the songwriting; Yoosun wrote all of the tunes on Light of the City.
The entire cast of players steps up to shine and their combined phrasing meshes remarkably well throughout . Bassist Carlo DeRosa works with Vijay Iyer and the acclaimed Cross-Fade collective. His lightning fast runs seem to propel and inspire. Drummer Jesse Simpson (who also has a piano album and is a cymbalsmith) has played with everyone from Fred Armisen to Wynton Marsalis to John Abercrombie. Pianist and Yoosun’s fellow countryman Kyumin Shim has complete command of all the clever harmonies and melodies that Yoosun has written. A Berklee student, Mr. Shim has performed at both the Newport and Montreal Jazz Festivals. Guitarist Keisuke Matsuno also has his own outfit called Trio Schmetterling whose latest release is entitled Globus. His clean tone is funky and spot on for this session.
Yoosun herself has studied or performed with George Garzone, Bill Pierce, Darren Barrett, Joe Lovano, Dave Pietro, Gill Goldstein, Kenny Werner, Alan Ferber, and Ralph Alessi. In 2011, Yoosun moved to New York City, where she began pursuing her Master’s degree in jazz studies from NYU Steinhardt.
I enjoyed this disc, and I must say I’d like to hear Yoosun Nam perform in an even more rock or funk context given her rollicking and tasteful chops. In any event, I will for sure keep an eye out for a follow-up, because this debut is nicely done. These guys are gettin’ down.