“Lua ya”, ECM debut of Korean singer Yeahwon Shin is a gently undulating album of songs, with a strong and subtle improvised component. These are songs remembered, discovered and invented by Yeahwon and her distinguished accompanying musicians, pianist Aaron Parks and accordionist Rob Curto, drawing both on childhood memories and the spirit of the moment. The album’s development has been fortuitous. The impetus for “Lua ya” came originally out of an Aaron Parks session. Yeahwon had come along as a visitor to Mechanics Hall, near Boston, where producer Sun Chung was recording a solo album with Parks (“Arborescence”, due for imminent release on ECM). The rich resonance of the sound in the room encouraged her to think about how a piano/voice duet might sound there, and in experimental mood decided to test it. Yeahwon and Aaron hadn’t played together previously, but found an instant musical connection. When Yeahwon spontaneously launched into a melody from her childhood, Aaron, hearing the song for the first time, intuitively rocked it in a careful cradle of chords. The unorthodox musical potential evident to both of them, they pledged to return and explore it further. When they came back to Mechanics Hall five months later, they brought with them accordionist Rob Curto. In tune with Yeahwon’s musical sensibilities, Curto frequently makes the exhalations of his accordion seem like an extension of her voice…
“Yeahwon” translates as “beautiful art”: she was named by her father, suspecting from the outset that his daughter had a creative contribution to make. At age five she took up piano, studying classical music while keeping an ear open to music ranging from pop to Korean traditional music. After high school she enrolled as a singer in a new course at Seoul’s Dong-Duk Music University, at listening sessions discovering that she loved Brazilian music, and identifying with the range of emotional expression in the work of artists from Jobim to Gismonti. She went on to study at New York’s New School – and in 2010 recorded her first album, called just “Yeahwon”, on the ArtistShare label. Strongly influenced by Brazilian music, the album featured a top-flight line-up of players including Mark Turner, Jeff Ballard, Ben Street, Kevin Hays, Cyro Baptista, Valentinho Anastasccio, Rob Curto and on one track Egberto Gismonti himself. In 2011 the album was nominated, alongside discs by Caetano Veloso and Milton Nascimento, for a Latin Grammy, an unprecedented achievement for a young woman from the suburbs of Seoul.
“I was very lucky with that first album. At the same time it was like an enormous homework assignment.” She’d learned Portuguese to make it, and “spent a huge amount of time on the arrangements of all the songs. And for the new record, I decided not to arrange at all. I wanted to do something really spontaneous and needed to be able to trust myself to do it. So the ‘homework’ you could say had made that possible. The melody in Brazilian music is so special – it is very close to my emotional personality. And I was able to find a way to make phrases close to the way that I hear, somehow. Well, this time I sang in my own language and in improvising tried to make a language, influenced by both the expressiveness of the Portuguese sound and by the Korean sound. I didn’t want to think about that during the recording – I just let the sound of the voice flow, but when I listen back to it now I can hear those influences are there.”
“Lua ya” heralds the arrival of Yeahwon’s daughter Lua, and is dedicated to mothers and children everywhere. The songs covered on the album are ones that Yeahwon learned from her own mother. “We had a small garden and we’d sing all the time while planting things each season. Those are some of my earliest musical memories.” Some of the songs, like “Island Child” and “Remembrance”, are very well known in Korea, others, she says, perhaps less so today. Yeahwon sang some of the pieces for Aaron Parks and for Rob Curto before the session, but most of the musical direction was determined in the process of recording. “We tried a few different approaches, basic things like who should start a piece, before we decided – it was Sun’s suggestion – to simply play a thirty minute concert in the hall, with no discussion. We just kept going. Some of the best musical moments came from this.”
Both Aaron Parks and Rob Curto make first ECM appearances with “Lua ya”. One of the most highly-regarded pianists of his generation, Parks first came to international attention as a member of Terrence Blanchard’s group, which he joined at 18. His own “Invisible Cinema” album on Blue Note was highly praised in the press.
Accordionist Rob Curto is recognized as a force in jazz and diverse aspects of ‘world music’. Originally trained in the jazz piano tradition and an early fan of swing music, 40’s popular music and bebop, he dedicated himself to the accordion and some of the many musical traditions associated with the instrument. He spent years studying with and learning from some of the great Brazilian accordionists, such as Dominguinhos, Arlindo dos Oito Baixos, Camarão, Silveirinha and others. He then went on to establish a strong presence for Forró, the dance music of the northeast of Brazil in New York City. Yeahwon Shin first met him when he lectured at the New School, and subsequently invited him to appear on her ArtistShare album.
“Lua ya” was recorded in May 2012, in Mechanics Hall, Worcester MA, with Sun Chung as producer and mixed in Oslo by Sun Chung, Manfred Eicher and Jan Erik Kongshaug.