Gig review: Nah Youn Sun and Ulf Wakenius at Pizza Express Soho

March 1st this year at Pizza Express Soho was Nah Youn Sun’s first headline gig in Central London. Her actual London debut was in the Vortex in Hackney in May 2009, and in March 2010 she supported the Swedish band Tonbrucket in a much bigger venue, the Queen Elizabeth Hall. LKL wondered whether Nah’s style of performance would work in a bigger space, but we need not have worried. A review of the Vortex gig is on LKL here and my review of the QEH concert is on LondonJazz here.

The space in Pizza Express Soho much more intimate. Sitting at a table in the front row you can almost reach out and touch the performers. So if a simple guitar and vocalist duo can control the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the intensity of the experience in the smaller venue could be expected to be that much higher.

Ulf Wakenius opened the show with a lively solo guitar number entitled simply Brazil, and was then joined by Nah. Bravely, rather than keeping the mood lively, she launched straight into Voyage, an incredibly slow and private waltz which demands the full attention of the audience. And partly because of the intimacy of the venue, but mainly because of Nah’s compelling if humble stage presence, the audience were immediately rapt.

Nah Youn Sun sings Same Girl
Nah Youn Sun's final song Same Girl, accompanied only by a musical box. One day I'll find a camera that takes decent pictures in low light.

Picking up the tempo a little, Nat King Cole’s Calypso Blues, came next, while Egberto Gismonti’s Frevo provided plenty of opportunity for vocal fireworks.

It’s difficult to pick out a highlight in the programme. I was looking forward to the Kangwondo Arirang (which Nah introduced as “Korean Blues”) and was not disappointed. I expected I was going to weep, and duly did.

But the number which brought the house down was a French song. When I was lucky enough to interview Nah last year she told me she was working on some chansons: “I suggested to Ulf that we try Léo Ferré’s Avec le Temps, and he immediately fell in love with it”

Nah’s performance of Avec le Temps was electric, and had a member of the audience in the front row sobbing uncontrollably.

After the performance Nah and Wakenius were happily chatting to members of the audience. We heard that with a bit of luck they’ll be back for the London Jazz Festival later this year. I asked Wakenius why he thought it had taken so long for Nah to start getting a name for herself in Britain. “It might be the francophone thing,” he said: “maybe it’s because the British don’t like the French. But whenever she performs here, people love her.”

Nah and Wakenius are an ideal duo, enjoying each other’s company on stage and communicating that enjoyment to the audience. Both have itinerant backgrounds – Wakenius, a Swede, was the last guitarist in the Oscar Peterson quartet (and in this gig he played a solo tribute to the jazz giant), while the Korean Nah is based in France – and their international outlook means that there are no geographical restrictions on what they tackle: they pick numbers from Brazil, America, Korea and elsewhere. But if Avec Le Temps is anything to go by, we’ve got a real treat in store when they do an album of chansons.

For the completists, the gig’s running order was as follows:

Brazil (guitar solo) (Ulf Wakenius)
Voyage (Nah Youn Sun)
Calypso Blues (Nat King Cole, Don George)
Frevo (Egberto Gismonti)
My Favourite Things (Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II)
Blues for Oscar (guitar solo) (Ulf Wakenius)
Uncertain Weather (Nah Youn Sun)
Kangwondo Arirang (Korean traditional)
Breakfast in Baghdad (Ulf Wakenius)
Avec le temps (Léo Ferré)
Jockeyful of Bourbon (Tom Waits)
Same Girl (Randy Newman)

5 thoughts on “Gig review: Nah Youn Sun and Ulf Wakenius at Pizza Express Soho

  1. Anna Lindgren: After seeing Nah Youn Sun yesterday I finally get how amazing she is. Not my kind of music, yet I got goosebumps.

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