During studies Boston, Okkyung Lee, a Korean cellist with classical training, discovered jazz. It was the era of Tonic in New York’s Lower East Side, and the revelation of free improvisation. Over the past 15 years or so, she has collaborated with a host of musicians from the improvised music scene, from Christian Marclay and Bill Orcutt to Ellen Fullman and Evan Parker, to name but a few.
In 2016, she formed a harp, cello, double bass, and piano quartet called Yeo-Neun, which means “opening gesture” in Korean. The strings are played with a bow, plucked or hammered, which ensures a remarkable homogeneity and transparency of timbre, and favours an assured form of lyricism.
May 2020, the band launches its first album. Ten compositions in which Ms. Lee displays a sensitivity and delicacy that’s surprising given the daring of her improv work. The first piece, for example, is as light as a breeze that gently undulates the curtains in the morning light. An enchantment! Not all the pieces are as contemplative, some are punctuated by more carried-away moments, but because of instrumentation one’s tempted to qualify as dreamlike, they exist for the most part in the same diaphanous and luminous dimension.
Ms. Lee also has a sense of invention. On “in stardust (for kang kyung-ok)”, the creaking and squeaking of the bows, reminiscent of a ghostly sailboat, creates a spatial perspective effect that enhances the dark and desolate character of the melody played on the piano. Superb! Her compositions are also sometimes inspired by pop or folk ballads from her childhood, so we find subtle Asian harmonies, which add to their charm.