Can This Korean Singer Revive French Jazz?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the next generation of jazz could be birthed from a surprising mother.
By J.Y. Lee
Koreans work some of the longest hours in the world, while the French work some of the shortest. When Youn Sun Nah quit her corporate job in fashion to move to Paris to study jazz at the ripe old age of 25, the hyperkinetic Korean singer continued to apply the work habits of her motherland, by attending four schools simultaneously (though she claims her voice is “80 percent genetic” rather than a product of the mad multitasking). Even after topping the jazz charts in France, Nah continues working the Korean way, averaging more than 100 concerts annually while renting a modest flat in Paris — last month, her eighth album, She Moves On, was released.
Both Koreans and the French claim the 47-year-old Nah as their own. At the closing ceremony of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, which heralded the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, Nah sang an upbeat rendition of Korea’s beloved folk song “Arirang,” which sublimates the longing of an abandoned lover. Nah has been awarded the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture, and Le Monde called her a “UFO touching the universe of jazz with a magnificent voice and passionate originality; jubilation in triple time.”
To understand Nah’s astral nature, tune into her “Calypso Blues” on YouTube, which features looping technology overlaying the vocals. After a shamanic incantation in free time, Nah clicks, pops and hums before laying down a groovy bass line. The dulcet melody opens, “Sittin’ by de ocean, me heart, she feel so sad.” She improvises and modulates her timbre and rhythm each chorus — a new planet with each loop.
Nah balances both classicism and experimentalism, says Didi Stewart, professor of voice at the Berklee College of Music. Nah uses her voice to evoke jazz instrumentalists: In her interpretation of “Besame Mucho,” for example, she sings like a saxophone player, while in “Enter Sandman,” she evokes Janis Joplin with metal-style guitar textures.
For She Moves On, Nah partnered with veterans of the avant-garde New York jazz scene, including producer John Zorn. While her previous albums showcased cosmopolitan titles (“Breakfast in Baghdad,” “India Song”), her latest features American classics such as Jimi Hendrix’s psychedelic “Drifting” and Joni Mitchell’s soulful “The Dawntreader” alongside her own compositions.
Swedish guitarist and composer Ulf Wakenius, who collaborated with Nah on “Enter Sandman,” as well as other ventures over the past decade, places Nah among the pantheon of jazz legends. “Nah is one of my absolute favorite singers on the planet,” he says. After meeting in Seoul, an event that Wakenius recalls as “true magic from the beginning,” the two have performed together around the world, including in Shanghai, where they played unplugged after the sound system broke down.
For all her stardom in France and Korea, however, Nah may not be able to crack the notoriously difficult American market. Few French jazz musicians after guitarist Django Reinhardt have gone mainstream; and pianist Hiromi Uehara may be the only recognizable Asian face in American jazz. “[Nah’s] U.S. audience will initially be a cult of in-the-know music obsessives and fellow musicians, but that audience will grow,” predicts Stewart. Nah’s success in America, Stewart says, rides on her new album, and whether or not it waters down her eclectic and daring style to easy-listening elevator music. Nah’s first American concert will take place on June 29, in Rochester, New York.
It doesn’t help that the heyday of American jazz is deemed to have taken place half a century ago, with canonized albums such as Kind of Blue regarded as the apotheosis of the art form. From its cradle, jazz has been in crisis. Streaming and record sales are at an all-time low, and jazz competes with classical music as the least-popular music in the U.S., according to the 2016 Nielsen Music Year-End Report. At the top of the charts are the descendants of jazz — rock and hip-hop, each boasting audiences about 20 times bigger than jazz. In 2015, The Nation asked, “Have we reached the end of jazz itself?”; three years earlier, in 2012, The Atlantic had declared “The end of jazz.”
But Nah remains optimistic. “Even if jazz doesn’t blossom now, it will go on for another century,” she says. She sees the business model of jazz as in transition from albums to concerts, and her globe-trotting schedule is a testament to the enduring popularity of the form. “Jazz will probably survive and flourish thanks to the interest and support of international audiences,” Stewart says.
Although Nah has graced some of the biggest stages in the world — among them, the Blue Note in New York and the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris — she wants most to sing in P’yongyang, the capital of North Korea. Her grandparents hailed from North Korea, and she hopes to perform there while her parents are still alive. (The late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was an opera aficionado, but it is unclear whether his son Kim Jong-un likes anything beyond basketball.)
Nah’s parents were her first music teachers — her father was the inaugural conductor of the National Chorus of Korea, her mother an opera singer–turned–musical actress (Nah still takes voice lessons from her mother when she returns home). Nah grew up listening to Korean rock stars rebelling against South Korea’s military dictatorship in the 1980s, and she made her singing debut in 1994, in a rock musical titled Subway Line 1, but her first album, recorded when she was 24, reflected her religious influences more than pop culture (Nah sang gospel with the Korean Symphony Orchestra).
I ask the genre-bending musician whether she could pioneer a subgenre by infusing jazz with Korean folk music the way Brazilians married jazz with samba. “It will be hard,” she says, because Korean music has a venerable tradition, making it difficult to parse for Koreans, let alone foreigners. But jazz needs a savior to overcome its fin de siècle malaise. Perhaps Nah’s combination of Parisian suavité and K-pop swag could resuscitate it.
- J.Y. Lee, OZY Author Contact J.Y. Lee