The Jac and Black String – Seoul Jazz, Wellington Opera House – 10 June 2017

Ever since Wellington’s Jazz Festival was taken over by the International Arts Festival crew this five-day event has grown from strength to strength.  Last night featuring The Jac and Black String. I can remember the change, nearly 10 years ago, from small back room bars, featuring mostly local jazz acts to Opera House sized gigs with international stars and headliners.  On the surface, this year’s line-up has featured the big household names such as Cassandra Wilson or Chick Corea but on the other hand it has also opened up opportunities for some unusual and fruitful collaborations.

One of those got its debut airing this afternoon in Wellington’s Opera House.  It was a cultural exchange of sorts between Wellington’s jazz collective The Jac and South Korean avant-jazz ensemble Black String.  The Koreans have played in New Zealand before, a few years ago, at WOMAD in Taranaki but most Wellingtonians would have missed them, unless they were fans of Korean traditional music.

The collaboration came about thanks to the Festival and a Creative New Zealand grant, and plenty of persuasion from Festival director Shelagh Magdaza who’d seen Black String at a festival in South Korea.  It led to a five day trip to Seoul, last December, for two of the Jac’s main men Jake Baxendale (alto sax) and Callum Allardice (guitar) to meet the members of Black String and (as Jake told me just before the gig) ‘hash out an approach”.  A little understated, this was actually a very beneficial excursion, resulting in two new compositions.  They were performed today, for the first time, by the Jac – Baxendale and Alladice plus Chris Buckland (tenor sax), Lex French (trumpet), Matthew Allison (trombone), Daniel Millward (piano), Nick Tipping (bass), Shaun Anderson (drums) – and the four piece ensemble Black String – Yoon Jeong Heo (geomungo) Aram Lee (daegeum) Jean Oh (guitar) and Min Wang Hwang (janggu).

The two new pieces were commissioned especially for the concert.  The first, A Gathering (penned by Callum Allardice) opened the hour long show.  The best way of describing this ‘tune’ would be to think of a mashup of American Jazz (Coleman, Bird, perhaps some and Kiwi influences like Paul Dyne or Roger Fox) mixed with a cross current of indeterminant Asian influences.  The horns give that brassy big band feel that we are familiar with but these are cut through by Aram Lee’s woody, throaty daegeum (a bamboo transverse flute with a buzzing membrane).  Add to that the Yoon Jeong Heo’s geomngo (zither), which she strums, instead of plucks, as is traditional.  That sound is so raw, it feels like another guitar and competes for its voice to be heard above the Nick Tipping’s walking bass.  What’s interesting about this piece is that at no time do the musician’s feel that they have to resort to the clichés we are familiar with Korean classical music, particularly the dance and opera traditions.  Often those sounds are harsh, squeaky, tinny to Western ears, and a bit tedious in large doses.  Allardice seemed to really understand Black String’s own mandate to use their traditional instruments to explore new ways of playing and that really shone through.

The other commissioned piece was Baxendale’s.  It came about he said, after visiting a palace in Seoul and coming out on to the street where he witnessed thousands of people gathering in a public square to protest and demand the impeachment of their President.  He was overawed by the experience.  So, what you get is a piece that opens with some references to the tranquillity of traditional Korean Royal architecture (mainly provided by the Black String ensemble) juxtapositioned later with clarion horns from the brass section.  Again, this one was something of a mash-up of styles but with more fluidity this time, making it harder to really pick apart each cultural reference.  As piece it had something of a journey and discovery theme to it.

The other three pieces played were Black String compositions – Growth Ring, Seven Beat, which they played by themselves except for Dang Dang Dang, which was arranged by Baxendale and Allardice for all twelve musicians.  This one was a joy to behold.  Mixing in the geomngo, again, with Min Wang Hwang percussion’s (including the janggu, a small side drum similar to the Celtic hand drum) it was a piece led by the beat.  With Black String the engine room is not the bass and drums, as is usual in most Western jazz.  It’s the other way around.  Together Jean Oh (electric guitar) and Yoon Jeong Heo (geomngo) build up these dense rhythm’s over which Min Wang Hwang plays a series of complex tattoos on his drums and cymbals.  To add even more complexity, he was joined at time by the Jac’s drummer Shaun Anderson is a kind of East/West variant of a Mexician stand-off.  It was a clever move and brought home the differences and similarities in both musical traditions.

This collaboration was totally unexpected but a real delight.  Being only an hour it gave a chance to immerse oneself without being overwhelmed or losing focus.  It also whetted my appetite to discover more about The Black String ensemble.  Oh, by the way, this project will feature at Korea’s Jarasum Festival in later this year, an event attended by over 200,0000 people.  Today’s event was RNZ, so, there’s an opportunity to hear it for yourself in the not too distant future.