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Hyeonseon Baek, Longing review

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    Posted: 22 Jun 2024 at 2:42pm
Korean singer Hyeonseon Baek, recently released his debut CD, “Longing,” on the You & Me label. The album comprises four of Baek’s original tunes and six jazz standards and features a talented ensemble of New York’s progressive jazz musicians, including woodwind specialist Lucas Pino, pianist Kevin Hays, bassist Linda May Han Oh, and drummer Joechen Rueckert.

Baek’s love for music blossomed at the age of 8 when he sang in the school choir. His musical influences ranged from soul and R&B artists like Stevie Wonder, Luther Vandross, and Donny Hathaway to pop musicians and eventually finding jazz through the music of Mel Torme and Carmen McRae. Baek’s talent earned him a Dutch National Excellence scholarship, leading him to obtain a Bachelor of Music degree in the Netherlands in 2019. In his final year as an undergraduate, Baek received a grant to travel to New York City, where he was inspired by the city’s vibrant scene. This experience prompted him to move to the United States and pursue a Master of Music degree at the prestigious New England Conservatory, which he obtained with the aid of a scholarship.

Hyeonseon’s debut album “Longing” is a captivating exploration of a selection standards and original compositions, showcasing the Korean singer’s ability to blend traditional and modern elements. The album opens with a mystical take on Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” where Baek approaches the classic from a unique perspective, delivering a melodic interpretation that is well-supported by the rhythm section, with notable solos from pianist Kevin Hays and woodwind specialist Lucas Pino.

The exotic mood continues with “Black Narcissus,” featuring a free wordless vocal introduction followed by Joe Henderson’s melody, performed with impeccable timing and intonation. Bassist Linda May Han Oh’s lyrical bass solo is a standout moment on this track. Baek then offers a rare vocal interpretation of Duke Ellington’s “Sound of Love,” singing Mingus’ original lyrics with conviction. The press release eludes the fact that his voice bears an unmistakable resemblance to Chet Baker, and it’s easy to imagine the legendary trumpeter making similar artistic choices. I would have to agree with this.

Baek’s original compositions shine on the album, with “West Fourth Street” serving as a tribute to the Greenwich Village club scene. The track appears twice, once in Korean and once in English, showcasing Baek’s razor-sharp precision with complex bop phrasing. Both versions feature strong solos from Pino and Hays, with Baek contributing well formed scat choruses. I enjoyed this track a great deal although I believe the inclusion of both versions may touch on the redundant, personally I would have left it with just the Korean version.

The title track, “Longing,” is one of the album’s strongest offerings, referring to the self-reflection we all experience at some point in our lives. Baek’s scat over the closing vamp and Hays’ piano solo are notable highlights. Another standout original, “My Temptation,” channels the feel of great bossanovas from Jobim, anchored by Oh’s complex bass line. The lyrics describe a love that might be real or imagined, making it one of the best tracks on the set.

Baek further explores renowned ballads from the jazz canon, offering a robust vocal interpretation of the timeless “Lush Life” by Billy Strayhorn. On Jimmy Rowles’ “The Peacocks” (presented here in Norma Winstone’s lyrical version, “A Timeless Place”), Baek’s voice soars in free rubato form over an unexpectedly lively rhythmic foundation, navigating the melody’s intricate twists and turns with unwavering precision. Horace Silver’s deceptively uncomplicated composition “Peace” commences with a spellbinding unaccompanied introduction by Oh, before Baek unleashes a commanding rendition of the melody, channeling his formidable technical prowess and profound emotional depth into an indelible 10-bar statement.

“Longing” is an exceptionally strong debut release from Hyeonseon Baek, showcasing his versatility as a vocalist and ability to seamlessly blend the tradition with a modern approach. With his pure, flexible tenor voice and collaboration with top-tier musicians, Baek has crafted a cohesive and adventurous album that appeals to a wide audience, crossing cultural boundaries with ease. His exploration of the chosen standards and original compositions provides a compelling display that offers a unique perspective on familiar classics while also introducing engaging original works. From the mystical interpretation of “Caravan” to the standout originals like “My Temptation” and the robust renditions of ballads such as “Lush Life,” the album consistently impresses with Baek’s timing, emotional depth, and technical prowess. “Longing” is highly recommended for anyone seeking a fresh, innovative take on the genre, as it undoubtedly heralds the arrival of a promising new voice in the jazz world.

Line-Up:
Hyeonseon Baek, vocals | Kevin Hays, piano | Linda May Han Oh, double bass | Jochen Rueckert, drums | Lucas Pino ,tenor saxophone.

Track Listing:
1. Caravan | 2. Black Narcissus | 3. Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love | 4. West 4th St (Kor) | 5. Longing | 6. My Temptation | 7. Lush Life | 8. A Timeless Place | 9. Peace | 10. West 4th St (Eng)

Release Date: April 26, 2024
Format: CD | Streaming
Label: You & Me Music

from https://jazzineurope.mfmmedia.nl

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