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Jim Snidero Explores South Korea

On Project-K, the veteran saxophonist and composer explores his longstanding interest in the music and culture below the 38th parallel

L to R: Rudy Royston, Dave Douglas, Snidero, Do Yeon Kim, Orrin Evans, and Linda May Han Oh
L to R: Rudy Royston, Dave Douglas, Snidero, Do Yeon Kim, Orrin Evans, and Linda May Han Oh at the Project-K recording session (photo: Benjamin Oh)

The Korean Connection

In 1996, Snidero traveled to South Korea for the first time; he married Myoung-Shin the following year. During this mid-to-late-’90s period, he kept playing with Toshiko Akiyoshi (as well as the Mingus Big Band, of which he was a member from 1997 to 1999). He’d seen traditional Korean performances before, but in 2001, Snidero had his first recorded brush with the music when he appeared on Akiyoshi’s album Hiroshima: Rising from the Abyss featuring Korean flutist Won Jang-Hyun. “Toshiko was very keen on combining Asian instruments with a big band,” Snidero says. “I think that she was a bit of a trailblazer with the integration of Japanese folk instruments and jazz.”

The new millennium, Snidero says, brought “the emergence of my music as a leader.” In 2003 and 2004, he recorded Strings and Close Up for Orrin Keepnews’ label Milestone, and when he signed to Savant Records—a sister label to HighNote—in 2007, he began a prolific run: He has recorded eight albums for the label in 13 years, not counting Jubilation!, his and trumpeter Jeremy Pelt’s 2018 tribute to Cannonball Adderley.

“I love Savant because they’re open to whatever I want to do. If I want to make a record that’s more abstract, then they’re not going to blink an eye about it,” Snidero says.

In 2019, he teamed up with Pelt again for Waves of Calm, a tribute to his ailing father that stands as one of his major works. Also abetted by pianist Orrin Evans, bassist Nat Reeves, and drummer Jonathan Barber, Snidero plumbed new levels of atmosphere and beauty. “I appreciate the harmonic depth in his playing,” Pelt tells JazzTimes. “It’s a pleasure to listen to him night after night.”

For his first album of the 2020s, Snidero opted to continue in a personal vein, feeling “a sense of inspiration from the people [of South Korea] and my wife.” He knew he wanted to integrate a Korean instrument, at first considering the taepyeongso, which he describes as “a little blaster horn, this trumpet-y kind of thing with a reed on it.”

Snidero decided to go with the gayageum, a lithe stringed instrument that’s a relative of the Japanese koto and the Chinese zheng. Through some social-media sleuthing on the part of his publicist Matt Merewitz, he located Do Yeon Kim, the first gayageum player accepted to the New England Conservatory, and knew he’d found his collaborator: “I checked her out online and said, ‘Well, that’s it. That’s who I need right there.’”

Kim, who lives in Boston, started on piano at four before picking up the 12-string gayageum at 11, connecting dots to pianist Cecil Taylor and saxophonist Anthony Braxton. “I love Monk so much,” she adds, speaking to JazzTimes prior to performing in an ensemble backing up a monodrama at the NYU library. “His harmony somehow fit into the gayageum sound.” (She breaks into humming the Monk classic “’Round Midnight.”)

“The note system’s very different,” she continues, explaining the gayageum’s ability to produce microtones. “I can bend the notes. I can shape the notes. I can express myself more closely.”

The gayageum, Snidero says, gives Project-K a sense of openness, allowing him to touch on the feeling of Korean music rather than aping it. “I wanted to have a tranquil aspect to the music, a smooth feeling, a liquid feeling,” he says. “I felt like with those other instruments [like the taepyeongso], the harshness would have held me back.”

Kim was the one who showed Snidero “Han O Bak Nyun,” calling it her favorite Korean folk tune. He sums up the song’s sentiment as “We should live together for 500 years, but why do I sense concern?”—a conveyance of han sorrow and insecurity.

“I didn’t want to do ‘Arirang,’” Snidero says, referring to South Korea’s most popular traditional song. “Everyone’s done that.” Eventually, though, he buckled, working Korea’s 600-year-old unofficial anthem into the middle harmony of the song “DMZ.” “I said [to the band], ‘I’ll put it in there, but it ain’t going to be what you think!” he recalls, strolling over to his upright piano to demonstrate. “There’s the solo vamp, which is in D minor; there’s the melody that I introduce in the beginning, which is F minor; then I’ve got Do Yeon in the middle playing ‘Arirang’ in D-flat major. So all three of those keys are going at one time.”

Snidero had recently watched Bong Joon-ho’s 2009 film Mother, about the extreme lengths to which a Korean mother goes to protect her son accused of murder. “Korean mothers put a premium on sons, often in the extreme,” he explains. For the track that shares its title with Joon-ho’s film, “I placed the gayageum in the extreme upper register to give the atonal melody a slightly shrill, creepy feeling.”

On a lighter note, Snidero also wanted to touch upon the K-pop craze in America, so he worked up the pop song “Jenga,” of which a version by Heize featuring Gaeko has over 12 million YouTube views. “I was just surfing around,” Snidero says. “I really wanted to do a K-pop tune because it’s just so prevalent now, man. I thought that would give some reflection of what’s happening right now.” (“Jenga” is the only track that doesn’t feature gayageum.)

Beyond Korean signifiers, “I value certain things in jazz that I’m not going to just throw out,” Snidero says. “The most important thing for me was to make sure that I liked it as a jazz record.” For balance, he wrote “Seoulful” and “Goofy,” more traditional boppish compositions.

The day before the scheduled recording date at Samurai Hotel Recording in Astoria, Queens, Snidero assembled his players—Kim, trumpeter Dave Douglas, pianist Orrin Evans, bassist Linda May Han Oh, and drummer Rudy Royston—at Jazz Standard in Manhattan. They rehearsed for two hours, gathered at Samurai the next day, and recorded Project-K in six hours.

“We started at 10; the video guys came around 12, 12:30; we broke for lunch; we did [two promotional live-in-the-studio] videos; then we finished with the last two pieces,” Snidero says. “Yeah, we were done by 4.” The album begins and ends with the ritualistic ring of a Korean prayer bowl, which sits atop his piano at home.

During the Manhattan Marathon at Winter Jazzfest, Snidero took the stage at Zinc Bar with a reshuffled Project-K: Kim, trumpeter Riley Mulherkar, pianist Helen Sung, bassist Harish Raghavan, and drummer Jonathan Barber. The pickup band only rehearsed once prior to the show, but they’re all professionals, Snidero says, and they did his vision justice.

“I was so thrilled with the record release,” he gushes. “The concept of the band was so aligned.”

Will Snidero take Project-K out for another album? “That’s hard to say. Not as it stands, exactly,” he says. “I’d probably augment it so that it was a little different. I’ll definitely be using some configuration similar to this one. But I don’t know if I could really justify or even come up with something that goes further into the Korean sound.”