Recording of the Week,
Jihye Lee crafts autobiographical large-ensemble jazz on 'Daring Mind'
South Korea-born New York resident Jihye Lee already has quite a presence as a composer and bandleader of large-ensemble jazz. Having made her studio debut with her orchestra’s much-celebrated April in 2017, her first outing was written in remembrance of the victims of the MV Sewol tragedy, the sinking of a Korean ferry, in 2014. On Daring Mind, she trades this sombre sentiment for something more autobiographical, and in the process showcases her growth as a composer and arranger. While Lee may be a celebrated bandleader now, she in fact received no formal jazz or classical training during her upbringing; her earliest musical success was found as an indie pop singer in her native Korea. After graduating from Dongduk Women’s University in Seoul, she made the move to Boston, Massachusetts to study at Berklee College of Music, finding her calling there in arranging and composing for jazz groups. She won Berklee’s Duke Ellington Prize after completing her major in Jazz Composition, later moving to New York to study for her master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music. She studied under the tutelage of pianist Jim McNeely, who continues to sing her praises to this day, hailing her as “a strong voice in the next generation of composers for large jazz ensemble”.
Lee’s background in pop perhaps grants her music a certain colourful edge and lyrical quality, as is plainly evident on some of her tunes - I don’t call big band music ‘catchy’ all too often, but this certainly fits the bill. Right off the bat, ‘Relentless Mind’ greets us with her rich orchestrations, with the tune led by some tasteful, warm brass and a killer hook. The dynamic ‘Unshakable Mind’ builds to a brilliant climax with brass leading the charge again, and Lee making use of the piano for some deep, rumbling low-end in the more intense sections. Lee cites her first four years in New York as the inspiration for the music on Daring Mind, in her own words; “composing has been my best friend. We danced, cried, laughed, and suffered together.” The personal touch in Lee’s music is palpable - Daring Mind certainly has its tonal ups and downs - with sombre tracks like ‘Suji’ sitting side-by-side with the aggressive ‘I Dare You’, followed by the lighter ‘Revived Mind’; the album’s sequencing keeps each piece as refreshing as the last.
Lee’s compositions remain just as dynamic and unpredictable throughout the record; the slow, swaggering ‘Why Is That’ quickly switches into a fast-paced post-bop number with the freneticism of more experimental big band arrangers past. Meanwhile, ‘Struggle Gives You Strength’, with a guest appearance from trumpeter Sean Jones, is a more bluesy number that grants a neat little contrast to some of the more peppy tracks populating the record. Opening with lighter sounds led by a gentle flute and piano, the aforementioned ‘Revived Mind’ finds us in a sparkling, bright soundscape with Lee making full use of the ensemble’s individual players, as each instrument pops up, one at a time, from amongst the ensemble. While Lee herself is not an instrumentalist per se, she has an uncanny sense of how each member of her ensemble can best be utilised; it also helps that the players she chose are top-notch too.
Lee’s keen ear for melody permeates the entire recording, making for a memorable and endlessly entertaining listening experience that showcases all sides of the composer’s personality, especially given its autobiographical nature. For her orchestra’s second recording, Jihye Lee’s Daring Mind beats the sophomore slump and is, as its title suggests, about as confident as you can get.