There weren’t many people who knew what to expect at the Vortex on Sunday night. Time Out had given a useful taster in their listings column, while one or two Korean fans (including the ambassador’s wife) knew Youn Sun Nah’s music well. Probably most of the audience were there because they are Vortex regulars – lucky folks – or because they knew the skills of guitarist Ulf Wakenius, late of the Oscar Peterson quartet. And, sensing the likely market, that’s the way the Vortex had pitched the gig on their website: the great guitarist introducing the skills of a talented singer from an exotic country.
But by the end of the evening there was no doubt that the audience had taken the Korean singer to their hearts.
Wakenius warmed the audience up with a couple of meditative solos – Keith Jarrett’s My Song and a tribute to Oscar Peterson based on a Danish folk tune. The mood was set perfectly for Nah’s entrance, and she launched straight into the slow, intimate, waltz Dancing with You which opens her latest album – Nah’s own composition. The recorded version is a trio for voice, guitar and melodica (the latter played by bassist Lars Danielsson), but as the evening was a duo recital Nah herself played a couple of melodica breaks.
Next came Nat King Cole’s Calypso Blues which works well with solo guitar. The recorded version is accompanied by solo acoustic bass which though setting off Nah’s voice well is less able to support the high point of the song.
A contrasting number which could have come straight from an Astrud Gilberto album, came next, followed by an intense Linden Tree, and, to bring the house down before the interval, the virtuoso Frevo by Egberto Gismonti.
By this time those in the audience who had never come across Nah had been drawn in. Her performance at times showed intense concentration in the quieter passages (hand gestures sometimes closing in on the face, fingers sometimes playing an imaginary flugelhorn), but also part of the joy of the concert – as with any high-quality live music – was the communication between the musicians. During the guitar improvisations, Nah looked on at Wakenius’s adroit fingerwork with admiration, while there was no doubting the respect in which Wakenius held the Korean virtuoso.
The second half started as the concert had begun, with solos from Wakenius – Love is Real, by E.S.T. – the title track from Wakenius’s own recent album, and a native American tune which found the guitarist doing some chanting.
Had Wakenius had a bet with Nah that he could introduce a tune from a horror movie into one of her meditative and tender compositions? Because in the introduction to Voyage, there were the unmistakable repeated-note figurations from the Exorcist theme. After this initial shock, we settled down into the private world of the title track to Nah’s sixth album. The set continued with another Brazilian-style number, and an American folk-song (Shenandoah) which has been with Nah since she heard it as a child – her father was a choral conductor.
Nah’s vocal career in France was initially intended to focus on chanson. It is to the jazz world’s gain that she chose another specialism, but her training showed itself in the French song which followed – Ne me quitte pas – in which her voice took on an authentic cigarette-fuelled tone. And there were gasps from the audience when the closing number, Tom Waits’s Jockeyful of Bourbon was announced. Those listeners who were impressed by this track should hurry to buy the album, because the recorded version, with the full quartet, shows even more variety of tone and colour.
Of course, this was a Korean singer. And no public performance by a Korean abroad is complete without a singalong version of Arirang, a versatile melody which seems to survive all sorts of arrangements. With delicate harmonies from the guitar and a quiet but emotional rendering from Nah, there were few dry eyes in the house. A final solo saw Nah playing a thumb-piano no bigger than a packet of cigarettes and sounding like a musical box, accompanying another atmospheric number – Favourite Things – which included kimchi in the list.
Nah has an agile voice with a wide dynamic range, but her forte is in her slow and magical pianissimos, which hold the audience in hushed attention. This recital was an evening of great partnership and music-making by professionals who clearly enjoy working together. It was Nah’s London debut, and we hope it won’t be long before she returns. Sebastian Scotney over at the London Jazz blog started the evening a sceptic but left a convert.
Youn Sun Nah and Ulf Wakenius played the Vortex on 10 May 2009, 8:30pm