Concert review: The Rock and Jazz sides of Younee

LKL reports from Younee’s two recent London gigs: The Rock Side of Younee a the 100 Club, 7 April; and Younee with Alex Hutton at the Steinway Piano Festival at Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho, 17 April 2010.

Younee is in London to show off the many sides to her musicianship. As a classically trained pianist who grew up listening to Deep Purple records, her concerts are always likely to mix the styles a little. The 100 Club, where the Sex Pistols chose to give one of their early gigs, was the venue for the first major concert of her 2010 tour. While it was billed as “The Rock Side of Younee”, she started and ended her show with some classical solo piano improvisations.

Younee at the 100 Club
Younee at the 100 Club

I have never thought of Debussy as a natural candidate for a rock treatment, but Younee’s version of his first Arabesque, with which she closed her second set, worked remarkably well. Gershwin’s jazz-inspired Rhapsody in Blue (in this version, a Rhapsody and Blues) is another natural candidate. But opening a rock concert with a set of simple Mozart variations (on the tune familiarly known as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star) was a brave choice. The format gave the scope for improvisation once a few of the original variations had been played, and so the experiment just about worked. Braver still was what came next: the first movement of Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata, played straight for two-thirds of its length, before straying off to uncharted territory. Comparing notes with another member of the audience during the interval, both of us thought there are some works which are best left alone, and the Waldstein is one of them. Still, the venue is no stranger to controversy, and ruffling the feathers of a couple of Beethoven aficionados is not going to register on their scale of upsets, and a “beyond genre” musician, as Younee describes herself, will not please purists all of the time.

But if Beethoven strongly resists free interpretation, J.S. Bach always seems to survive whatever arrangers such as Jacques Loussier, Ward Swingle or even Uri Caine throw at him. Younee’s Brubeck-infused version of the Siciliano from his flute sonata BWV1031 is exquisite, whether in the solo piano version which appeared in her live interview on BBC Radio 4’s Womens Hour, or in a two-piano version which appeared in her set with Alex Hutton at Pizza Express Soho.

On to safer territory, Younee’s 100 Club gig moved from the grand piano to electric keyboard to join bassist and drummer for a set which consisted mainly of numbers from her album True To You, as well as covers of songs from the Beatles, Kings of Leon and the Rolling Stones. Even with her own songs, classical music was never far away: she often starts her title track with the thunderous first few lines of Chopin’s Revolutionary Study before relaxing into a more comfortable rock intro. Again, the mix of classical and rock may not work for everyone.

Younee with band at the 100 Club
Younee with band at the 100 Club

The set included a new song which will hopefully make it on to Younee’s next album. For me, though, the highlight of the 100 Club evening was a song from Younee’s past – a Korean song that belongs to her former musical persona, Key’s Piano. Somehow, when singing in Korean Younee’s voice relaxes. The inflexions of language and melody seem strangely more natural than is simply explained by the fact that the artist is singing in her own native tongue. Not only did Younee seem more at home, but so did many members of the audience: for what is more comforting than a Korean ballad? If one of the most pleasing songs on Younee’s album is “Home to You”, this particular song actually felt as if we were all coming home.

But this gig was more about Younee’s present and future, and there is plenty to be excited about. The audience was mixed in terms of age, race and gender, and everyone responded to Younee’s energy and musicianship. The winner of the LKL competition told me afterwards: “I enjoyed it much more than I was expecting”.

She should have come along to Pizza Express in Soho on 17 April, when Younee was joined by jazz pianist Alex Hutton at the Steinway piano festival. There’s something about two pianists playing together – particularly when semi-improvising – which makes for a special musical experience, and sitting in the front row at such an occasion is pretty much as good as it gets.

Younee with Alex Hutton
Younee with Alex Hutton

The hour-long set had many highlights, among which were Alex Hutton’s two numbers, The Ballad of Beautiful and Silent Man (the latter of which had echoes of both Philip Glass and Keith Jarrett’s Cologne concert), the touching arrangement of Bach’s Siciliano and Younee’s own True to You: it was a relief not to have the Chopin introduction this time, and Hutton sat out the first half of the song before returning to the keyboard to provide some inspired jazz embellishments to Younee’s rock harmonies.

A surprise item was a Korean folk song, Bird, bird (새아 새아): beautiful harmonies, delicately played. This was a well-balanced, enthralling set, and I wouldn’t be surprised if, come December, this concert is pretty near the top of the shortlist for LKL event of the year.

100 Club gig: SterneSterneSterneSterneSterne
Pizza Express Soho gig: SterneSterneSterneSterneSterne

For completists, the running order of the Steinway gig was as follows:
Gershwin: Nice work if you can get it | Debussy: Arabesque | Hutton: Ballad of Beautiful | Gershwin: Rhapsody and Blues | Bach: Siciliano | Younee: True to You | Bird, bird (Korean folk song) | Hutton: Silent Man | Younee: Friendly Fire | Kern: All the things you are.

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4 thoughts on “Concert review: The Rock and Jazz sides of Younee

  1. Haha, I’m mentioned on here! Thank you, Philip. Yeah, I really enjoyed that night. Thank you so much, once again. I agree with you, I think Younee’s Korean song was also the highlight of the evening. (I also do happen to listen to a lot of Korean music as it is.) Her voice rang much truer and purer, and you could hear the different layers of emotion coming out from her voice more. The song did remind me of those from tragic K-dramas a bit though, because it was so sad. Hmmm…it seems a pity that I didn’t go to the gig at Pizza Express! I think I did check before but I wasn’t sure how to get tickets and I couldn’t find her on the website.

    By the way – from looking at the book reviews on this website – I have now purchased Free Food For Millionaires (currently reading), Nothing To Envy and Meeting Mr. Kim! I’m planning on moving to Korea next year to teach.

  2. Glad you found the book reviews useful. I never know whether many people read them!

    I’m really interested that you also found the Korean song the highlight. What did you think of the classical improvisations?

  3. I’m an avid reader, so I’m always checking out book reviews. I read some not so good reviews on Free Food For Millionaires from Amazon, but I’m nearly halfway through the book now and I’m really enjoying it. I’ll probably read Meeting Mr. Kim next and then the North Korean book. Always wanted to read more on North Korea but never have so when I came across your review (having never heard of the book previously), I knew that I wanted to get it straight away.

    I don’t have much knowledge of Classical music. When I listen to music along the realms of Classical, it tends to be film scores, so it still isn’t quite the same. I did think Younee was good. You can tell she is highly highly talented, but I preferred her singing and injecting her energy into the atmosphere. But I did think mixing the two together made it very interesting. I preferred her singing and playing the piano the most. It was really soothing.

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