Youn Sun Nah Heads to New York City This September
In Korean, it's called han. It's an elusive but poignant feeling, the bittersweet longing mixed with shades of pleasant melancholy. A similar emotion pervades lusophone music as saudade and ducks in and out of the blues.
That feeling first hit Korean-born, Paris-honed singer Youn Sun Nah as a young woman, when she listened to Brel and Brassens, to the great chanson singers. Years later, she perfected her precise, delicate, utterly dedicated approach to transmitting that enigmatic yearning, moving to France to pursue her love of ja zz and discovering a circle of like-minded top European jazz players to buoy her efforts.
On her latest album, Lento (ACT Music, 2014) and now on her first West Coast tour, Nah and guitarist Ulf Wakenius (who long played with late great Oscar Peterson) explore Nah's ongoing fascination with jazz, pop, Korean folk, Western classical, and even metal and industrial music. (Nah has covered both Metallica and Nine Inch Nails.)
Born into a musical family, Nah long resisted the temptation to follow in her conductor father and musician mother's footsteps. "I saw how hard they worked, and thought I should just enjoy music as a hobby," she recalls. She studied French literature at the university, then worked in the fashion industry for a time.
But the musician's life beckoned, when a n enthusiastic college friend sent her demo into the director of a musical theater piece. Nah soon found herself singing on stage. Though most of her musical education had been in the Western classical realm, she decided to take a great leap of faith-and move to Paris to study jazz singing.
"I went to four schools at once, for four years," says Nah with a laugh, "and I took a lot of lessons. I really dived into the world of jazz, into vocal technique, and into improvisation."
Her ingénue's ear served her well. "I absorbed everything I heard, like a sponge. I was like a child, starting from scratch," Nah notes. "I was so curious, so interested in everything around me." This open-eared approach helped the chanteuse hone in on her own style, the sound that fit her own voice.
At first, she fell in love with American jazz vocalists, but the culture that birthed them felt unfamiliar . Then, thanks to her mentors, she discovered the world of European jazz, and dug deep into the cultural underpinnings of the French songbook that had first enchanted her.
Yet Nah has strong ties to her Korean beginnings, in subtle, yet significant ways, and not only when she renders Korean folk songs like "Arirang" with swinging grace and breathy tenderness. "Our music education system is very strong," she reflects. "Everyone sings and everyone learns to play the piano. And there are many elements that jazz and Korean traditional music have in common, like call-and-response structures. There's also the feeling, han, that I can feel in many jazz and French songs."
Uniting these seemingly disparate musical worlds-jazz and the many traditions of Korea-is their emphasis on improvisation. Just as she dived into jazz technique and repertoire in France, Nah blazed her way to mastery of scat singin g approaches. Now, she has built on that practice and improvises by engaging with the melody. "It's the melodies, that's the most important element in all these songs," muses Nah, "and in the melody, I can find the emotion."
Nah's emotion and musicality are supported by guitarist Wakenius, a veteran of the European jazz scene and a listener whose curiosity equals Nah's own. "He suggested I try singing 'Enter Sandman,'" Nah recounts, "and he encouraged me to try Nine Inch Nails. But he's also an amazing jazz player." Their responsive dialogue on recordings and on stage leaves ample room for freedom, room to play with the whole span of music that inspires Nah.
"Ulf has a huge range, and an excellent set of techniques," say Nah. "I like how he composes and improvises; he's very melodic, too. I can find the melancholy, rage, and humor in his mus ic. There's just so much feeling." It's a characterization that suits Nah's own voice perfectly.