Jungsu Choi Tiny Orkester by GEMMA VAN DER HEYDEN

Dare yourself to take your first listen to leader Jungsu Choi’s “What if Ellington Didn’t Take the A Train” without any sampling or YouTube prepping beforehand. Seriously, just jump in. Immediately you’ll find yourself questioning whether you’re bearing witness to some retro atomic sound effects or even a theramin…?

Jungsu Choi’s 11-piece ensemble, Tiny Orkester, tumbles back into the familiar melody of Ellington’s iconic classic, punching the air with energy and spilling out of its own boundaries. The brass is assertive, on point and in unison, and yet smooth and lyrical. The rest of the band backs it up with a way-funky reiteration of the most memorable phrase from the Duke’s original.

All this and more from the mind of a (literally) off-the-charts and decidedly different-thinking composer. Based in Korea, Choi’s band is planning a European tour in 2019 for his new CD in which the Great American Songbook smashes up against free-range jazz.

What inspired you to take “Take the A Train” and make it your own?

When I started to study jazz, the Real Book edited by Steve Swallow was my most important textbook, like most jazz students. Actually, I learned most of basic harmonic devices from analyzing the changes in all the songs in the book. Duke Ellington is one of the most influential composers to me. So in homage to him, I choose the piece “Take the A Train” and re-composed it with a tweaked title “What if Ellington Didn’t take the A Train?” – I mean, what would jazz be today without Ellington?

What is the biggest challenge of working with a big band sound?

My band Tiny Orkester is not a big band but an 11-piece large ensemble. It’s impossible to make a powerful big band sound with such a small jazz orchestra. The biggest issue in writing the music is how to create a richer sound making the use of a unique combination of the instruments we have.

I’ve tried to make each part take an independent role as much as possible using contrapuntal devices rather than simple tutti horn voicing.  

How do you choose your personnel?

The first thing I consider when hiring musicians is whether they’re interested in my music or not. My charts are written on a very advanced level. Actually, at first more than 10 musicians who joined with Tiny Orkester as a session or side man gave up the project.

I want them to not think of themselves as just as a sideman or a session musician. This is not my music but our music. I had only sketched out half of the picture, and my awesome musicians beautifully colored in the other half.    

How many in your Tiny Orkester?

We are 11 players (male voice, flute, trumpet, trombone, alto and tenor sax, cello and four rhythm section players) plus conductor (me).

What do you like most about riffing off an idea and creating something new?

Paradoxically, I’d have to say that writing music is one of the most painful things I do rather than being a joyful thing.

Below is an excerpt from my liner notes:

“In front of an empty sheet, I go on a fishing expedition to find notes that will fill out the blank measure. Sometimes it takes more than a week to fill a single measure, which is a difficult and lonely time. Suddenly, I grab a vague idea that seems to float through the air. However, in the majority of cases, this first idea is not the right one and instead is thrown out because it might be a cliché, old fashioned or simply too plain. For me, writing a piece of music is a laborious series of choices and throwing ideas away again and again.”

Nevertheless, when my ideas were played by these musicians and it created real music, the euphoria is an irreplaceable feeling. That’s the reason I write music.

Jungsu Choi CD cover

What was the stage debut of your new CD like in Bimhuis?

The gig at Bimhus in Amsterdam was JTO’s debut stage performance. Each member in JTO is a veteran top musician with a lot of experience. Before this, we hadn’t ever given a concert of this new music, even in my country of Korea. We were really excited that our music would be finally performed in front of a European audience.

Also, Bimhuis is a world-renowned jazz venue. We enjoyed the gig and the appreciative cheers of the audience with this experimental jazz of ours. Bimhuis is a fantastic stage for jazz musicians and in addition has a sophisticated audience. It was an awesome debut for us.  

Talk about the new CD, “Tschuss Jazz Era”?

As a leader, it was seven years ago that my big band album was released, “JUNGSU CHOI New Jazz Orchestra in London.” Since then I planned to organize my own large jazz ensemble in Korea.

I started this project and the band ambitiously with the US and European jazz scene in mind rather than limiting it to Korea.

Fortunately, I was able to release the current album on Challenge Records which is one of the leading jazz labels in Europe. Our music is meant to be free jazz, without any labels. This is not an ordinary big band jazz that you’ve listened to.

About the title: “Tschüss” is Deutsche meaning “good bye” in English. In this project, we covered some old jazz standards. I intended to pull them out from their ordinary jazz idiom. I just wanted to let it go in a way that the final destination is undecided.

I wanted the music to be given freedom, as jazz is evolving even now. I’m ready to say hello to tomorrow’s new jazz. It is the Tschüss Jazz Era!

How long did it take to produce and what was the most fun part of it?  

It took three long years to write pieces and then I started to cast the top musicians in Korea. It was one of the hardest jobs to determine the line-up. We prepared for more than a year before recording. 

It’s been a long, hard time for us and now we are ready to show our music to European jazz fans.

What tracks are the most different?

This album includes five tracks. Three are arrangements from standards and the remaining two are original compositions. I think the two originals, “Stolen Yellow” and “Nach Wien,” are the most different in terms of mood.

“Stolen Yellow” has quite a complexity in its harmonic devices, structure, meter and tempo. But when I composed “Nach Wien,” I wanted to make a lyrical mood and refrain from harmonic and rhythmic complexity. The song is about my good memories of Vienna.          

Where do these musicians live?

We are all in Seoul.

What is the jazz scene like where you live?

In terms of Korea, it has its own steady consumers and enthusiasts. Jazz has risen rapidly in popularity over the past ten years here.  

There are more than 10 annual jazz festivals including the internationally renowned Jarasum Jazz Festival and the Seoul Jazz Festival, which have featured many luminaries such as Pat Metheny, Joshua Redman, Gary Burton and others. In Seoul alone there are more than 30 jazz clubs where diverse jazz musicians play gig every nights. but it’s a shame that we don’t yet have many international musicians here.

Where would you most want to perform?

One of my wishes is to play at the jazz club Porgy & Bess located in Vienna, Austria. Actually, I spent my twenties in Vienna to study music. Back then, I visited that club almost every night to hear jazz.

The club was like a classroom that I could learn real jazz listening to masters like Maria Schneider, John Scofield, Anthony Braxton…. Listening to them there, I thought how much I’d like to be up there on that stage with my own big band.

Do you remember your first arrangement?

If my memory serves me rights, it was a gospel song when I was a teenager. At that time, I played drums in a church band. 

Because we usually played not with exactly notated arrangements but with simple lead sheets, I wanted my band to play more musically. 

I used to give my musical ideas verbally to other band members and we then arranged the music, which is an awesome experience that got me interested in composition and arranging.

What catches you most in a song – melody, harmony, instrumentation?

Actually, I can’t say which has the highest priority. Usually, when I compose or arrange, the general flow of the melody and bass line come first.

There are so many diverse ways to develop compositional ideas. Sometimes, I assemble the top line and bottom line, and then choose harmonic devices and density. In terms of melodic devices, I’ve been hugely inspired by Nicolas Slonimsky’s theory on handling melody.

What do you hope audiences get from hearing your new CD?

If you like it, just enjoy it your own way.

But if I have to say one thing. I recommend people listen out for how modern, orchestral jazz can interpret older standard jazz in a unique fashion.    

Where will you tour this CD?

I’ve had the European and US jazz scenes in mind rather than limiting ourselves to Korea. We are focusing on lining up more concerts in Europe and are planning a tour in 2019.   

For more information, visit www.jungsuchoi.com.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Jungsu Choi. Second photo courtesy of Gemma Van Der Heyden.
© Debbie Burke 2018

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