Infinite Connections
Release Date: May 31, 2024
Label: Motema

Infinite Connections, Jihye lee's 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.”

Daring Mind
Release date: March 26, 2021
Label: Motéma Music

Daring Mind is the sophomore album by the Jihye Lee Orchestra. Produced by Lee, in collaboration with the innovative composer and Secret Society bandleader Darcy James Argue, and with renowned trumpeter Sean Jones as a key contributor, Lee’s Motéma debut showcases the South Korea native’s personal and adventurous storytelling approach to large-ensemble jazz over the course of nine spellbinding compositions. 

As a  follow up to her widely-acclaimed 2017 debut April, Daring Mind presents selections from Lee’s ‘Mind’ Series, including her BMI Charlie Parker Jazz Composition Prize-winning “Unshakable Mind” and her Manny Albam Commission “Revived Mind.” The album reflects her struggles, doubts, joys, and hopes while living in the amazing city of New York. The compositions explore the human mind, heart and soul, the various states of the human psyche from confusion to rage to enlightenment. 

Lee describes composition as a form of record-keeping for herself, as the documentation of her life, the process of finding musical equivalents to the images, thoughts and emotions in her mind. She writes first and foremost for herself, to release her feelings, which makes her music deeply personal. “My goal is to invite listeners into my creative world, to relate to my stories, and to reflect on the truth that as humans, we share similar struggles and triumphs regardless of where we come from. It is my hope that we can create genuine connections with each other through art,” she says. 

A native of South Korea, Lee had no jazz or classical training growing up, and she first found success in Korea performing as an indie pop singer. She graduated from Dongduk Women’s University with a degree in Voice Performance, discovering her love of large-ensemble jazz only after beginning her studies at Boston’s Berklee College of Music in 2011. Confidently she began to explore her own identity and voice within this exciting, historically rich medium, winning Berklee’s Duke Ellington Prize just months after declaring her Jazz Composition major (and again the following year). Though she could never have anticipated this new path, she has followed it to greater heights, moving to New York in 2015 and earning a master’s degree at Manhattan School of Music under the guidance of the great Jim McNeely. “Her music is imaginative and creative.” says McNeely. “And she’s not afraid to take some exciting chances in her writing.” 

Navigating the transition from pop singer to jazz composer has given Lee a different angle on jazz composition, providing her not only with a lyrical melodic sense but also a way of imagining characters in every composition, and writing memorable themes with which people can identify. Her first instinct is not to find chords and melodies — Lee is not herself an instrumentalist — but rather an idea, image or message, and then find a way to express it through musical elements. All of this and more is realized on Daring Mind. 

Daring Mind begins with “Restless Mind”, which emulates the bustle of New York City with its twisted rhythmic feel and repetitive notes. Featuring Sean Jones and trombonist Alan Ferber, the vibrancy and beauty of a pre-COVID city that never slept is on rich display in this dazzling opener. Following is “Unshakeable Mind”, winner of the 2018 BMI Charlie Parker Composition Prize. Inspired by the competitive environment of the New York music scene and the effects it has on one’s own psyche, “Unshakeable Mind” explores the nature of a determined and persevering spirit, with strong solo and ensemble support from alto saxophonist Ben Kono. The gorgeous “Suji” comes next. Written for one Lee’s dearest friends, this bright composition features only major chords played through chamber-like instrumentation. Kono once again plays a leading role here, as does pianist Adam Birnbaum. 

Gears shift on the fourth track, “I Dare You”, which was commissioned by American entrepreneur Matt Mullenweg. “Since I am not a traditional swing big band style composer, sometimes I face the famous question ‘what is jazz?’” states Lee. That same question arose in an interview with Wayne Shorter by Max Dax in 2014, and his answer is “To me, jazz means: “I dare you!’” This is the title of this song and in many ways the inspiration of Lee’s entire approach to jazz. “I believe that jazz is not a style or genre, but a daring spirit, being creative by cultivating your instincts.” Tenor saxophonist Quensin Nachoff shines on this track which is full of sonic surprises. 

The BMI Manny Albam Commission piece “Revived Mind” showcases soloist Mike Fahie on trombone. This colorful composition is an homage to nature and Earth, to rebirth and rejuvenation. Track 6, “Struggle Gives You Strength” was originally written for Carnegie Hall’s NYO Jazz and once again features Sean Jones. On this uplifting and inspiring composition, Lee comments:  “Struggle is an essential part of life and it molds us into beautiful individuals with character.” 

The final third of Daring Mind features the bluesy “Why Is that” with solos by Jones and alto saxophonist Rob Wilkerson; the dissonant tri-tone filled odyssey “Dissatisfied Mind” which ruminates on the negatively that can intrude ones’ thoughts; and “GB”, a stunning closer inspired by love found and lost. Highly cinematic, the beauty and joy of happy memories slowly gives way to crushing breakdown, before reluctant acceptance sets in. As an aspiring film music composer, this vivid track particularly showcases Lee’s great potential in that arena. 

With the release of Daring Mind, Jihye Lee makes a major statement that will likely propel her, deservingly, to the top echelon of contemporary jazz composers and bandleaders. Late last year, it was announced that Lee earned a 2021 ASCAP Foundation & Symphonic Jazz Orchestra commissioning prize, further defining a clear next step in her bright future. The first single “Struggle Gives You Strength” will be released on February 5th, and the second single, “Revived Mind” will release on March 5th.

SUZANNE LORGE
DOWNBEAT
"Stirring and filmic in scope, the tune changes hues at every turn—just like the city that so captivates Lee’s imagination." Read this review here.

 

TED GIOIA
CULTURE NOTES OF AN HONEST BROKER
"Few things are harder than paying the bills for big band jazz in the current day. But she is one of our most promising up-and-coming jazz composers, and will probably defy the odds. Expect to hear from her again in the future." Read it here.

NATE CHINEN
WBGO
"Daring Mind — Lee's impressive second album, co-produced by Darcy James Argue — illuminates the distance she has traveled as a musician, while opening a window onto her life experience." Read the full video feature here.

MORGAN ENOS
JAZZTIMES
"In the space of 10 years, the South Korean immigrant has gone from jazz novice to masterful big-band leader and composer." Read the feature article here.

SETH COLTER WALLS
THE NEW YORK. TIMES
"Her crisp arrangements balance frenetic virtuosity with an overarching reflective mood." Read this review here.

 

JASON CRANE
THE JAZZ SESSION
Featured guest on episode #545. Listen to the podcast here

MORGAN ENOS
GRAMMY.COM
"One of six big band composers moving the genre forward." Read the feature here.

RON SCHEPPER
TEXTURA
"Lee's hardly alone, of course, in the contemporary jazz orchestra field. Argue has his Secret Society, and the outfits led by Maria Schneider, Anna Webber and Angela Morris, Miho Azama, and Chelsea McBride are among those deserving of mention. Lee's might overlap with theirs in terms of instrumentation, but on Daring Mind her compositional identity asserts itself strongly." Read this review  here.

RICHARD B. KAMINS
STEP TEMPEST
"Daring Mind" is a musical triumph. In just two recording, Jihye Lee has proven herself to be a mature composer and arranger, creating music that engages both the musicians and the listeners." Read this review here.

WULF MULLER
ALL THAT JAZZ + MORE
"Her music is surely a universal reflection of what it means to be human and her band transports these feelings perfectly. A stand-out big ensemble work of many colours and emotions and timeless quality!" Read the blog post here.

MIKE JURKOVIC
ALL ABOUT JAZZ
"Thus Daring Mind, Lee's Motema Music debut, co-produced by Darcy James Argue serves not only as a triumphant successor to 2017's heralded, self-produced April, it plays as a buoyant drama, a roaming investigation that swells and swales in all the right places." Read this review  here.

MAL STANLEY
ABC JAZZ
Daring Mind featured as the Feature Album of the Week. See the article here.

JACK BOWERS
ALL ABOUT JAZZ
"Lee is securely at the helm, inflexibly steering the ship toward her chosen destination. Those who choose to board may find the voyage predictably turbulent yet unexpectedly rewarding." Read this review  here.

JIM HYNES
MAKING A SCENE
"..leave your big band perceptions and inherent biases behind. Open yourself to this stunning listening experience and you will surely be rewarded." Read the full review here.

STEPHEN GRAHAM
MARLBANK
"...clearly invigorating and striking." Track feature here

ADAM BUDOFSKY
ON THE DRUMS/MEDIUM
Read the story here.

FILIPE FREITAS
JAZZ TRAIL
"Swamped in hard-swinging variations, the bluesy “Why is That” is probably the closest to tradition you will get here. Hence, don’t expect Daring Mind to be a traditional big band jazz record. Expect something more adventurous and glowing, and still very accessible. " Read this review  here.

 

CHRIS SPECTOR
MIDWEST RECORD
"Loaded with modern accents to keep nu ears interested, anyone can enjoy this as it's loaded with relatable sounds and tunes that hit the mark. Well done." Read the review here.

GEORGE KANZLER
NEW YORK CITY JAZZ RECORD
"Daring Mind is a consistently fascinating aural adventure." Read the full review in the March 2021 issue of the New York City Jazz record here. 

MATT MICUCCI
JAZZIZ
Featured in 'The Week in Jazz'. Read here

DEE DEE MCNEIL
MUSICALMEMOIRS'S BLOG
"This is an exciting orchestra led by a thriving talent and award-winning composer who is clearly exploring the many sides of her own mind and exposing them to the eager ears of the listener."Read the review here.

 

LUDOVICO GRANVASSU
ALL ABOUT JAZZ ITALIA
'Daring Mind' featured on new and upcoming release playlist. See the article here. 

JONATHAN BLACKMAN
OCCHI MAGAZINE
"It was an absolute honor to listen to this album and I hope everyone takes notice of this rising star that is shining so brightly!" Read this review  here.

PHIL FREEMAN
STEREOGUM
Read The Best in Jazz article here, featuring 'Daring Mind'. 

ANGELO LEONARDI
ALL ABOUT JAZZ ITALIA
Read the review here.

SCOTT YANOW
LA JAZZ SCENE
"Lee’s arrangements for her nine originals are unpredictable but logical, adventurous yet often melodic." Review here.

JAZZWISE
Watch the video for 'Suji' as the video of the day here.

RON SCHEPPER
TEXTURA
Listed on the Best of Jazz 2021 article here.

MIKE JURKOVIC
ALL ABOUT JAZZ
Listed on Mike Jurkovic's Best Recordings of 2021 list here.

JOHN FORDHAM
THE GUARDIAN
Listed on Top 10 Jazz Albums of 2021 here.

JAZZ TIMES STAFF
JAZZ TIMES
Listed on Top 40 Jazz Albums of 2021 here.