Alto saxophonist Jim Snidero is combing through his and his wife’s collection of Korean antiques in their Hell’s Kitchen apartment—a mouri jang chest with bamboo nails, a wealthy woman’s namaskin rain shoes, and a small wooden temple guardian. “It stands guard over the Buddha,” he tells JazzTimes about the figurine. “There’s sometimes over a hundred of them.”
Defensiveness, he says, is a quintessentially Korean emotion.
“I think they feel like people have been messing with them all the time,” Snidero says. “That’s one of the most valuable pieces of property on Earth, that peninsula. The Chinese invaded them, the Japanese invaded them. The Japanese made my [Korean] mother-in-law change her name to a Japanese name while they were occupying. So they have this feeling like they can’t really control [their lives] because these countries are so big.”
There’s an ancient Korean word for this feeling: han, encapsulating resentment, incompleteness, and regret—but also resolve.
Jim Snidero’s latest album Project-K, which came out in January, is bookended by two songs referencing that word: “Han,” an original tune, and a cover of “Han O Bak Nyun,” a 500-year-old public-domain folk song. Using a jazz sextet outfitted with gayageum, a folk instrument resembling a zither, the album explores his personal and creative connection to Korea.
There are good reasons for the American saxophonist to reference that country. His wife of 23 years, Myoung-Shin, is Korean, he’s been to South Korea “many, many times,” and he speaks a bit of the language himself. Plus, by diving into transoceanic influences on Project-K, Snidero was able to break out of the boundaries of bebop, a style he’s been associated with on the New York scene for more than 35 years.
“I don’t think that we’re mimicking anything on the record. It’s all original music,” Snidero says, bucking the idea of cultural borrowing. “I’m not sitting there trying to write Korean folk songs. It’s pretty abstract. I was more interested in texture than compositional techniques.
“That was the main objective—to make it a jazz record, but have that texture interwoven into it,” he continues. “To me, that kind of thing has no borders. It’s not disrespecting tradition. If you’re a painter, you’re using different colors and different lines. You see influences woven through all kinds of things in the art world. Music is no different.”
Making the Scene
Snidero was born half a world away from Korea: in Redwood City, California, to Italian-American parents in 1958. As a “suburban kid” growing up in Camp Springs, Maryland, outside of Washington, D.C., he caught pianist McCoy Tyner, tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, and alto saxophonist George Coleman at clubs like Blues Alley and the now-defunct Cellar Door and One Step Down.
After being accepted to the jazz program at the University of North Texas, Snidero put in time with its in-house ensemble, the One O’ Clock Lab Band, in 1980 and 1981. He also studied with two major saxophonists: Phil Woods, a hero since he bought 1969’s Round Trip as a teen, and Dave Liebman, who, he says on his website, “helped [me] to reach the next level as a musician.”
In 1981, a 23-year-old Snidero moved to New York City, where he met saxophonist Walt Weiskopf, a key collaborator with whom he’s still close. “I remember meeting Jim at a jam session in 1981,” Weiskopf says. “My recollection is that Jim was wearing a big cowboy hat, but I’ve asked him about this and he doesn’t think so. Maybe I remember it this way because I knew he’d studied at North Texas State.” (“I never had a big cowboy hat,” Snidero confirms.)
As a young transplant, Snidero played on two albums by organist Brother Jack McDuff: 1982’s Having a Good Time and 1983’s Lift Every Voice and Sing. In 1984, he recorded his debut as a leader, On Time, at Van Gelder Studios in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, featuring pianist Kenny Kirkland, bassist George Mraz, and drummer Billy Hart.
“I was really scared. I was scared to death,” Snidero says of making that album (released in 1985 by Eastworld), which features his mustachioed younger self on the cover. “There are things about it that sound young, but I’m proud of it.” The album was produced by Toshiko Akiyoshi, a composer, arranger, and bandleader in whose jazz orchestra Snidero would go on to play, rubbing elbows with Weiskopf, bassist Peter Washington, and trumpeter Brian Lynch, among others.
In 1988, Snidero released Mixed Bag, featuring Lynch, Washington, pianist Benny Green, and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, on Criss Cross Jazz. (Two other albums, 1993’s Blue Afternoon and 1996’s Vertigo, followed on the same label.)
“The ’80s were kind of [my] getting-established period, developing friendships and relationships with some of the great musicians in New York at the time,” Snidero explains. “The ’90s were a period where I was more of a sideman.”
Between 1990 and 1995, he and Weiskopf played in Frank Sinatra’s band, joining him a few weeks per year at the now-defunct Sands Atlantic City. Although uncredited, Snidero was part of the big band for the Chairman’s 1994 swan song Duets II, featuring Willie Nelson, Jimmy Buffett, and others.
“When we were backstage, he was just like one of us,” he says of Sinatra. “He was just drinking some Jack Daniel’s, chewing some gum, getting ready. It was like all of that fame melted away. But then when he went out, I guess I would call him the greatest musical genius I ever played with.”