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Jihye Lee: Daring to Lead

In the space of 10 years, the South Korean immigrant has gone from jazz novice to masterful big-band leader and composer

Jihye Lee
Jihye Lee conducts her orchestra (photo: Michael Yu)

The opener “Relentless Mind” was the final piece Lee completed for Daring Mind, right before the session began in January 2020. For that track, Lee used strict yet ever-shifting repetition. “Every instrument repeats its phrase length and phrase notes, but it’s never really matching with the others,” she explains. “It’s very hectic-feeling. It’s like haze. It’s, ‘Okay, it’s groovy, but what’s the meter?’ That’s my image of New York people.”

Lee constructed “Unshakable Mind” on counterpoint harmonies, a tactic she used liberally on April. “It’s my admiration toward all the musicians and artists pursuing their artistic goal, or what they want to achieve,” Lee says. “It has an arc; the whole piece is building up [with] a quiet part in the middle, and then it keeps building up to the end. It repeats a lot, but it shakes your core when you listen to it. That gave me a big lesson: Less is more. I had to learn how to cut out things to make one aesthetic stand up [better].”

“Suji” is a tribute to Lee’s friend Suji Kim, who wrote “Crossing Points” on Lee’s 2018 voice/piano duo album As the Night Passes. “She’s a lovely person. She only sees good in anything,” Lee says. “Let’s say I hate someone, and I say, ‘Suji, I don’t like her!’ She always says good things about her. That’s her. That composition has only major chords—never sad or angry chords. Most of the lines are ascending lines, which [speaks to] her character.”

Following Shorter’s dictum, “I Dare You” is a testament to being a Korean woman in jazz. “I feel accepted into the jazz world,” Lee says. “That’s because jazz is a genre embracing all the differences. It’s very open. As long as you have a daring spirit, trying new things, I think every musician from all over the world can be welcome.”

The exuberance of “Revived Mind” masks something darker. Although Lee describes it as a “fun, cartoon-like song,” she says that “I wrote it while I was not really happy, but I was looking forward to the revival of my personal life.” While noting the clapping and stomping during the solo section, Lee paints a surreal picture of herbaceous life in revelry.

“It’s like a vegetable version of The Lion King to me,” she says with a laugh. “The Lion King is about animals, right? But it’s not as strong as animals. It’s more like a plant version. It’s cuter; it’s milder. In my image, all the veggies are dancing and clapping together—sprouting and stretching. They’re reviving after the sun comes.”

Lee wrote “Struggle Gives You Strength” for Carnegie Hall’s NYO Jazz program, of which Sean Jones is the musical director. The original had two solos—one by Jones and another by a younger member of the group. For this version, Lee blended gospel and big-band, two styles that don’t typically braid together. “It’s kind of rare to see gospel music in the big-band context, but it’s locked because big-band is a powerful sound,” Lee says. “And the message I put with the gospel spirit and rhythm is also strong, so I thought that was a good combination.”

“Why Is That” is the only swing tune on the album—with a twist. “It has 12 bars, repeating three or four times—it’s blues, but I tweaked it,” Lee says. “[The title] is not only about music but about myself. I wanted to achieve something simple, but I’d failed. I started out writing a simple blues tune, but it didn’t go well. That’s the question of myself: ‘Why is that? Why can’t I do that? Why am I like this?’ But it’s a fun blues tune with a questioning kind of phrasing.”

For “Dissatisfied Mind,” Lee envisaged her head as having a cover with a hinge. “I cut my head and open the cover, and then I look into my head. I see a lot of popping thoughts—questions, discontent, all the negativities—and I want just to put back the cover. The theme of that piece, interval-wise, is that it has a lot of half-steps and tritones. It has a very discontented, unpleasant sound, but I like it.”

While Lee says the elegiac “GB” is about “the positive side of a breakup,” she based the wrenching track on the three phases of separation. “It speaks about the gradual digestion that [happens] after the breakup,” she explains. “First, you’re thinking about him or her; it’s beautiful, it’s reminiscing. Then it gets emotional, dark, you’re sad, you’re crying. Then, after, it’s just haunting. It’s my story about a breakup, but it has three different stages. It’s a ballad, but it’s very dramatic and emotional.”

“I feel accepted into the jazz world. … As long as you have a daring spirit, trying new things, I think every musician from all over the world can be welcome.”

THE TWAIN SHALL MEET
Two months after the Jihye Lee Orchestra completed Daring Mind, the COVID-19 pandemic grounded live music globally. While Lee waits it out at her apartment in Queens, she’s brainstorming a potential next project—one hinged on Korean traditional music, which she’s been communing with during this period of isolation.

“It’s funny because Korean music has no harmony,” she says. “It makes it so difficult for a big band because big-band is all about thick, lush harmony! I’m trying to adapt it to the complexity of the rhythm.” These days, Lee’s making soap for her friends as a hobby and teaching private students over Zoom. But whenever COVID eases up, she wants to revisit her home country and delve deeper into her musical heritage.

To Lee, there’s tremendous potential in how the spheres of Korean music and big-band can blur. “It’s very new to Korean music, [being] played by Western instruments,” she says. “Also, for Western people, it’s very new. I think it can please both worlds.” Whether Lee will succeed in this lofty goal remains to be seen. But one thing is sure: She will dare.