Eunhye Jeong and Her Quartet Make Haunting Improvisational Music Out of Otherworldly Korean Pansori Themes
Pianist Eunhye Jeong‘s CHI-DA quartet’s live album The Colliding Beings – streaming at Bandcamp – is like nothing else you’ll hear this year. With an otherworldly intensity true to the spirit of the epic Korean pansori tradition, the group reinvent those stark, dramatic themes as jazz improvisation. What’s most striking is that Jeong brings in the great pansori singer Il-dong Bae, whose stern, melismatic vocals shed eerie microtones and soar over the instrumentalists in more muted moments, and interact with them when the music grows more stormy. The greatest pansori singers are known for their individualistic interpretations, so there’s always been an element of improvisation in the tradition, and Jeong seizes that mightily here, with a relentless unease and a fondness for lower registers. This is dark music.
The concert is a series of longscale works that conclude with a relatively brief, six-minute number. The group – which also includes cellist Ji Park and colorful drummer Soo Jin Suh – open with the almost eighteen-minute Jeogori, based on a historical song popular among diasporic Korean schoolchildren in Japan. There’s a lot of stark conversationality throughout this performance, beginning with murky resonance and quickly giving way to a little leaping around. The drums introduce a suspensefully muted backbeat as the cello scrapes the lows and Jeong colors the music with enigmatic close harmonies and sudden bursts. Bae’s gruffly impassioned intensity eventually recedes for a persistently flurrying, funereal Atrocity Exhibition beat contrasting with all the agitation overhead; then the vocals take over the rhythm. Mysterious lulls and gritty declamations serve as a contrasting backdrops for spare, rather bleak accents from the band.
The ghostly, anguished Return to Life begins with snowbanks of white noise from Suh’s drumheads punctuated by icy piano droplets, shards and wisps of sound from the cello as Jeong goes to stygian lows. A flickering franticness that recalls the macabre compositions of Michael Hersch develops, rises and falls, Jeong using every texture available, both inside and outside the piano, from a menacing drone to furtive scrambles and fragmented, circularly percussive phrases, Bae lingering like a spectre outside the window.
The centerpiece of the concert is The Hope Landed. In about twenty-six minutes, Bae is an often anguished, desolate voice in the wilderness, Jeong a persistently restless presence, Park and Suh the shadows lingering behind. There’s infinitely more going on: dynamically shifting variations on an insistently troubled, stairstepping Messiaenic passage; a long, aching vocal interlude with atmospheric, lurking cello and leapfrogging piano; chilly, ambient dips to stillness; surreal handoffs and echo effects; heavy, severe block chords from Jeong; and a hint of a ballad at the end.
The Sacrifice is dedicated to the victims of the 2014 Sewol Ferry disaster. Calm/acerbic contrasts between cello and piano build tension, then back away elegantly for Bae’s mournful intonations: this music transcends any linguistic limitation. The grim crescendo midway through, seemingly where the overcrowded boat capsizes and everything goes flying, is arguably the most intense point of the show. They bring it full circle, elegaically.
They close the concert with Curtain Call, a return to contrasts between shamanistic beats and poltergeist piano blurts, and shivers from the rest of the ensemble. Even if free jazz is a little outside for you, the roles are so clearly defined and the playing so focused here that fans of dark sounds in general should check this out.