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Tim Garland’s Korean collaboration: Sinawi and the Blues

The combination of Korean traditional instruments with modern western ones gives rise to complex performance issues. Incompatibilities of style, volume, timbre and tuning are challenges to be overcome, not always with success. With the improvisatory nature of jazz, where instruments get their chance for solos and where amplification is a customary feature of the mix, there is much more scope for the fusion to succeed. And, given that one particular genre of Korean traditional music – the sinawi – is based around improvisation the prospect for a successful marriage seems much more likely.

Tim Garland (saxes), Heo Yoon-Jeong (Geomungo), Lee Aram (Daegeum), Jean Oh (guitar), Asaf Sirkis (drums)
Tim Garland (saxes), Heo Yoon-Jeong (Geomungo), Lee Aram (Daegeum), Jean Oh (guitar), Asaf Sirkis (drums). (Image © Melody McLaren)

Saxophonist Tim Garland confessed that initially he didn’t know how his project with the Korean musicians was going to work out, but when he discovered that Korean musicians ask “do you play sinawi?” much as jazz musicians ask “do you play the blues?” things looked up. Garland’s own musicianship is highly flexible, ranging from classical to jazz, and being able to make his soprano sax sound like a baroque oboe as he does in his recording of Bach concerti means that he was an ideal candidate to try a collaborative exercise. On the Korean side Lee Aram and Heo Yoon-jeong both play in fusion bands (Baramgot and Tori Ensemble respectively), and with Heo in particular enjoying playing with echoplex the scene was set for an intriguing evening. Joining the sax, daegeum and geomungo was Jean Oh’s guitar, Asaf Sirkis on percussion and John Turville and Gwilym Simcock on keyboards.

Heo Yoon-jeong (Geomungo) (Image © Melody McLaren
Heo Yoon-jeong (Geomungo) (Image © Melody McLaren)

Enough of the theory. How did it work in practice? Well, it was a shame that the event was not being recorded, as I would have subscribed for the CD there and then.

The set started with the three Koreans on their own, performing a refreshing contemporary take on daegeum sanjo. The guitar in particular had a versatile range of sounds, aided and abetted by effective use of the tremolo arm which enabled the sound to blend effectively with the daegeum.

This was followed by the sinawi, where the Koreans were joined by sax, percussion and keyboard. Each of the instruments was able to have a solo improvisation, and the styles together worked well to produce an exhilarating mix.

Lee Aram (Daegeum)
Lee Aram (Daegeum) (Image © Melody McLaren)

A composition by Tim Garland, performed by his trio on their won, was followed by another piece for the full ensemble composed by Gwilym Simcock, which was possibly the least successful of the numbers, with its big tune feeling somehow out of place with the rest of the piece. The finale, Constantly, was a piece composed by Lee Aram and arranged by Tim Garland – a collaboration played out by email as a result of the limited amount of time all the musicians had together to compose and experiment.

As with the sinawi, each instrument got a chance to shine, with a meditative gomumgo solo revealing it to be a surprisingly effective jazz instrument. Lee Aram played the smaller sogeum flute as well as the daegeum in this number, which suited the exstatic climax to the piece.

All in all, this was a triumphant fusion of improvisatory styles, played in a warm, enveloping acoustic which complemented the sounds. More please.


Korea Moves with Tim Garland was at St James’s Piccadilly as part of the London Jazz Festival, 14 November 2012. Thanks to Melody McLaren for permission to use the images.

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