by Ian Mann
January 07, 2011
Nah is performer who combines versatility with a high degree of individuality and this eclectic record is likely to have considerable cross genre appeal.
Youn Sun Nah
(ACT Music ACT 9024-2)
Youn Sun Nah is a Korean vocalist now based in Europe. Born into a classical music family she moved to Paris in 1995 to study jazz and chanson and subsequently began to build a following around the jazz clubs of Paris. She also began to record frequently and to become a regular performer on the European jazz festival scene. Albums such as “So I Am..” and “Memory Lane” established her as a significant force in both the European and Asian markets and in 2009 Siggi Loch signed her exclusively to ACT.
Her ACT début “Voyage” was a major success in her adopted homeland of France but also established Nah as a major figure on the German music scene. The record was an eclectic mix of songs spanning jazz,rock,pop and world influences and was recorded with two the help of two ACT stalwarts guitarist Ulf Wakenius and bassist/cellist Lars Danielsson. The album also featured percussionist Xavier Desandre-Navarre and trumpeter Matthias Eick.
“Same Girl” covers very similar ground to the début with Wakenius, Danielsson and Navarre all safely back on board. The material is a similarly broad mix but with slightly less emphasis on original composition. Despite the credentials of the players this isn’t strictly speaking a jazz record but Nah’s music is never less than interesting. Her chanson training is frequently apparent and she exhibits a certain Bjork like quirkiness that gives her interpretations considerable charm. Her highly personalised arrangements find her deploying unusual instruments (kalimba, music box and kazoo) alongside the more conventional instrumentation of her colleagues.
Many of Nah’s arrangements are minimalistic, almost skeletal, and no more so than on the opening track “My Favourite Things”, here delivered in an exaggeratedly slowed down fashion with only her own kalimba for accompaniment. It gives a wistful, almost melancholy feel to the song and offers a surprisingly fresh take on a much covered item. The piece often acts as an encore in Nah’s live performances.
“My Name Is Carnival” reveals a more aggressive side to Nah’s music. The late Jackson C. Frank’s rousing folk melody and politically charged lyrics stir the soul with Nah’s bravado vocal performance paced by Wakenius’ taut acoustic guitar. The pair often appear as a duo and I would presume this piece to be one of the staples of their live performances.
Wakenius’ own “Breakfast In Baghdad” adds a Middle Eastern feel to the proceedings and brings Danielsson and Navarre to the party. Nah’s sensual, well crafted scat vocals fit in well with the exotic instrumentation and there’s an excellent solo by Wakenius over the colourful rhythms of his colleagues. Thrilling stuff.
Nah’s own “Uncertain Weather” is more sombre, with dramatic weather inspired lyrical imagery in a sparse group arrangement that hints at elements of Americana. There’s a tasteful, keening electric guitar solo from Wakenius to add to that impression.
Sergio Mendes’ “Song Of No Regrets” is sadder still with the mournful sound of Danielsson’s cello predominant in a stark and melancholy arrangement. Nah invests the song with considerable emotion and her voice, combined with the minimal instrumentation, is highly effective.
“Kangwondo Airang” offers more wordless vocalising, this time on a delightful Korean traditional folk melody. Wakenius’ delicate, crystalline guitar is the perfect accompaniment and the whole thing is really rather lovely.
“Enter Sandman” comes from a very different source, that heaviest of rock bands Metallica. It gives Nah the chance to demonstrate her astonishing vocal range, literally all the way from a whisper to a scream. But the arrangement (by Wakenius) isn’t just about histrionics, there’s a good deal of subtlety here too as the duo de-construct a metal classic for just voice and acoustic guitar.
The title track is a Randy Newman song which Nah treats to a pared down arrangement featuring glockenspiel like music box. It’s very much a companion piece to the opener “My Favourite Things” with Nah’s slowed down vocals lending Newman’s words an air of ambiguity.
The next two pieces demonstrate Nah’s sense of humour. “Moondog” by former Pentangle drummer Terry Cox has the kind of exaggeratedly eccentric blues arrangement that wouldn’t be out of place on a Tom Waits record with Nah taking a kazoo solo! Interestingly Nah covered Waits’ “Jockey Full Of Bourbon” on her previous ACT album “Voyage”.
The playful “Pancake” is a list of Nah’s favourite fast food stuffs. It’s fun, quirky and highly rhythmic with great contributions from the three instrumentalists. Like the food she describes it’s all a bit throwaway but fatally irresistible.
To close Nah returns to her roots in chanson with “Le Chanson d’Helene”. Guest narrator Roland Brival adds his honeyed Gallic tones to Nah’s dreamy French language vocal.
Although not strictly jazz “Same Girl” is still an impressive and highly enjoyable album. Nah is a singer with huge technical gifts and she deploys her impressive range imaginatively. Her material is well chosen and the arrangements, by either Nah or Wakenius, combine imagination and colour with precision and clarity. The playing by an excellent band of ACT veterans is as accomplished as the singing. Nah is performer who combines versatility with a high degree of individuality and this eclectic record is likely to have considerable cross genre appeal. Don’t be surprised to hear Youn Sun Nah on Late Junction alongside a clutch of other ACT artists-and I can just see her charming version of “My Favourite Things” cropping up on a mobile phone ad!
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