NEW ALBUM INFINITE CONNECTIONS FROM THE AWARD-WINNING  JIHYE LEE ORCHESTRA FUSES TRADITIONAL KOREAN RHYTHMS WITH CONTEMPORARY ORCHESTRAL JAZZ TO CREATE A PROFOUND CROSS-CULTURAL MEDITATION ON LIFE, WOMANHOOD, AND THE TIES THAT BIND HUMANITY. 

Out May 31 via Motéma
Listen to first single, “We Are All From The Same Stream”, out as of April 5, here

Second single, “Eight Letters”, out May 3

Co-produced by Darcy James Argue with features by Ambrose Akinmusire and percussion by Snarky Puppy’s Keita Ogawa

“Listening to bandleader/composer Jihye Lee and her mic-drop orchestra is like watching your life flash before your eyes. You see it all: All the richness of spirit one can attain. All the sadness one can espouse. All the waltzing mischief to which one can aspire.” – Mike Jurkovic, All About Jazz.

In recent years Jihye Lee, among the most acclaimed large-ensemble jazz composers/conductors of her generation, has thought a lot about her grandmother, who died in 2020 at age 85, after a punishing bout with dementia. Born in 1935 in Korea, then a Japanese colony, she was an orphan who married as a teenager, primarily as protection from the sex trade that exploited parentless children like herself. Every day, often while her husband drank at the local bar, she’d traverse a frozen river to gather tinder for a fire that would warm her home and enable her to cook for her family. 

Lee’s grandmother witnessed extreme political, social and technological shifts in Korea in the ensuing decades, most of these changes positive, even liberating. But she carried an abiding sadness with her throughout her life. “It wasn’t self-pity,” Lee explains. “It was like a deep sorrow in her soul.”  

In composing Infinite Connections, her new Motéma follow-up to the award-winning and critically lauded Daring Mind, Lee reflected intensely on such stories of familial and cultural history. She contemplated womanhood and the patriarchal oppression she saw around her growing up in Korea — and why she had few female role models as a young singer-songwriter. Lee felt a newfound need to understand her ancestry, which she saw as largely irrelevant once she’d moved to America and experienced success away from her family. 

“I was questioning my identity. Who am I?” she recalls. “And the most important connection, one I will never be able to deny, is that I am a daughter of my mother. I’m from her body.” Lee realized, of course, that her grandmother could have defined herself in the same way, and that the seemingly personal bonds in her life could extrapolate outward until they encompassed all of humankind. Infinite connections.

These are heady concepts to explore in an orchestral jazz album, to be sure, but Lee has a rare gift for conveying narratives through her music with power, grace and imagination. Case in point: Each progressive jazz piece on Infinite Connections features a traditional Korean rhythm, a brilliantly literal correlation between Lee’s heritage and her current reality as a celebrated bandleader living in Brooklyn. Even more fascinating, she’s coming to these Korean rhythms after having absorbed the art of jazz arranging first — a Korean-born artist tackling her homeland’s traditional music through the lens of an American jazz composer. 

Throughout the album, the Japanese-born percussionist Keita Ogawa, of fusion heroes Snarky Puppy, offers virtuoso performances of these rhythms in seamless integration with the orchestra’s regular rhythm section. To Lee’s credit, it’s a remarkable feat of arranging, a meld of two musical strategies that appear to be at odds: the ritualistic, hypnotic repetition of Korean rhythm subsumed into Lee’s distinctive approach to composition, which balances her love for musical surprise with a keen sense of overall structure she gleaned as a singer-songwriter. 

To say it another way, stark shifts in dynamics, time, texture and harmony only enhance her music’s ability to engage her audience. Her co-producer, the visionary composer and bandleader Darcy James Argue, was once again at Lee’s side during her recording sessions, helping to shape her aesthetic by emphasizing both boundless creativity and meticulous attention to detail. “Darcy is the perfect producer,” Lee says, “someone I can really trust.”

Argue’s task, as he explains it, was to keep the sessions running smoothly and on time and allow Lee to focus on her role as conductor. In that capacity, he says, “She’s a great natural conductor. She moves with a lot of grace.” And her skills are only gathering strength. “There’s really no substitute for having that experience of being live in front of musicians. … She’s blossomed into that role in a wonderful way.”

Guest soloist Ambrose Akinmusire is also deployed on Infinite Connections in a way that honors his vast gifts as a trumpeter while serving Lee’s larger ideas. The story of his presence here begins at the Village Vanguard, where Lee took in a performance she found positively soul-stirring. “I could hear his deep soul, his philosophies, his spirituality. And this album carries that kind of theme,” she says. “I wanted my album to reflect soul-to-soul connection, and I couldn’t think of any better trumpeter than Ambrose.” 

Akinmusire appears on two tracks, including “Surrender,” where he navigates the boldly unconventional harmony of the solo section with his trademark combination of peerless technique and striking emotionality. Other album highlights include “We Are All From the Same Stream,” with solos by trombonist Alan Ferber and saxophonist Jason Rigby, a grooving exploration of a simple but profound fact: No matter how different we might be from one another, we all share the same joy and anguish that define the human experience. 

“Born in 1935” chronicles the life of Lee’s grandmother, starting with a major chord that signifies the innocence and happiness of youth; as impoverishment and patriarchy take hold, the piece’s harmony darkens and the tempo accelerates with anxiety. Along the way, alto saxophonist David Pietro offers an evocative marathon solo underscoring his matchless big-band resume. “Eight Letters” is a tragic companion track of sorts to “Born in 1935.” Its title is taken from Korean astrology and represents the eight letters, assigned at birth, that signify a person’s fate. Because the death of Lee’s grandmother was so sudden — battling dementia, she wandered outside for hours one night until she collapsed in a sesame field — the composer’s own mother succumbed to immeasurable heartbreak. Over the course of a year, she grieved so intensely that her despair manifested physically and she ended up bedridden. “Now that grief is mine,” Lee says. “I blamed the misfortune on my mother’s eight letters. There are unanswered questions, and chaos.”

Along with such human trials, Lee’s eight letters have contained unprecedented triumphs. In South Korea she developed a career as a singer-songwriter — as well as a burning desire to discover herself and find her footing away from Korea’s male-dominated culture. “I wanted to see the bigger world,” she says. “I wanted to find my own voice as an artist.” Facing down bewilderment and naysaying from her family and community, she moved to the States and enrolled at the esteemed Berklee College of Music, where a jazz composition course sparked the flame that became her calling. “It happened as if it was fate,” she reflects. “I always had an enormous passion for creating something, rather than being a part of the creation. I wanted to be a creator.” She won Berklee’s prestigious Duke Ellington Award in composition twice and moved to New York City, where her professional life began in earnest. 

She’s since discovered confidence in herself that she couldn’t have imagined as a younger woman in South Korea. It’s the result of seeing strong women thrive on the jazz scene in New York, as well as a tribute to her Korean ancestors, who overcame monumental struggles so that Lee might one day fulfill her dreams. “Right now, I can happily say that I’ve earned a feeling of ownership in my work, and I’m grateful for my band members who give me trust,” she says. “They don’t treat me as a woman; they treat me as a leader, composer and conductor.”

 

TRACKLIST: 

  1. Surrender (feat. Ambrose Akinmusire) (6:22)
  2. We Are All From The Same Stream (6:38)
  3. Born In 1935 (7:07)
  4. Eight Letters (6:59)
  5. Karma (7:54)
  6. You Are My Universe (feat. Ambrose Akinmusire) (7:33)
  7. Nowhere Home (6:59)
  8. In The Darkest Night (8:32)
  9. Crossing The River Of Grace (feat. David Smith) (5:11)

 

CREDITS:

Recorded at Power Station at BerkleeNYC on October 17 & 18, 2023

Producers: Darcy James Argue, Jihye Lee

Ben Kono – alto, piccolo, flute

David Pietro – alto, flute, alto flute

Jason Rigby – tenor, flute, clarinet

Jonathan Lowery – tenor, flute, clarinet

Carl Maraghi – baritone, bass clarinet

Brian Pareschi – trumpet, fluegelhorn

Nathan Eklund – trumpet, fluegelhorn

David Smith – trumpet, fluegelhorn

Stuart Mack – trumpet, fluegelhorn

Mike Fahie – trombone

Alan Ferber – trombone

Nick Grinder – trombone

Jeff Nelson – bass trombone

Alex Goodman – guitar

Adam Birnbaum – piano

Matt Clohesy – bass

Jared Schonig – drums

 

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