Hyungjin Choi – Tales of a Dreamer (2014)

Classically trained, but unafraid to furiously swing, Hyungjin Choi leads a group of likeminded jazz performers through a set that is as varied as it is satisfying.

In keeping, Tales of a Dreamer offers an engaging palette of moods, across a dynamic range of textures. Hyungjin, a New York-based, South Korea-born pianist, is principally paired up front with talented saxists in Uri Gurvich and Yacine Boulares. But an album this complex all but requires an ever-evolving cast of collaborative voices, and Hyungjin has found a series of suitable foils.

She begins with “Dreamer,” and an eerily beautiful piano figure, before giving way to a more turbulent saxophone. When Hyungjin returns, she plays with a new assertiveness, adding trickling fills and storm streaks alongside the active, but never showy, rhythm accompaniment of drummer Alex Wyatt. Hyungjin’s voice, diaphanous and light-filled, then perfectly blends with the returning sax. “Labor Blues” offers a more angular approach, as Hyungjin tussles brilliantly both with the horn and the drums — before Wyatt takes a boisterous turn. “Jordan River” then moves confidently toward bluer, deeper waters, even as bassist Pablo Menares creates this thrumming sense of expectancy. Trumpeter Takuya Kuroda makes his initial impression here, unfurling long diaphanous lines.

Already, Hyungjin has underscored how her entire life, in a sense, has lead to Tales of a Dreamer — from her time at the Seoul Institute of the Arts, to New York’s New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music (where she earned an BFA in performing arts), to bandstands all over the Big Apple. She has performed with and learned from a staggering number of old pros and fresh talents along the way, including Reggie Workman, Charlie Persip, Billy Harper and Sam Yahel, among many others.

And so we have “Autumn Song,” which — rather than delving into the expected oaken reminiscence — finds Hyungjin singing with an unself-conscious joy, her voice displaying an unfettered, slightly fragile hopefulness. Wyatt and Menares meet this challenge, too, creating a stuttering cadence not unlike a child skipping home for school. Kuroda then adds a series of sun-stained thoughts, before Hyungjin returns to provide a counterpoint against this lockstep horn figure that closes out “Autumn Song” on a note of bravado.

“Dexterity,” on the other hand, absolutely lives up to its title as Hyungjin and Wyatt establish a heady structure before Menares begins happily plucking away. These are sophisticated technicians, blindingly good at what they do, but (and this is what’s missing in so much of today’s jazz) not so caught up in their craft that they forget the needed emotional underpinning. Hyungjin’s subsequent solo is dense, personal, questing and then reflective — a wonder of conception.

That leads directly into “Tiny Room to Hide,” a solo interlude, and on to the greasy groove of “Toy Soldier” — something that couldn’t be further away, in tone or execution. Kuroda leads the charge as Hyungjin and Company reanimate every 1950s-era Blue Note concept. She jabs back playfully, even as Wyatt smacks his kit with a funky verve. It’s as friendly as the previous moment had been serious, right down to Kuroda’s Dizzy-like flourishes. After a chugging sax segment, the two tangle and untangle to close our “Toy Soldier” in old-school blowing-sessions style.

“The Everlasting Arms” emerges from an initial saxophone signature into a quietly effective solo from Hyungjin — but one, nevertheless, of undiminished enthusiasm. Menares adds a perfectly attenuated foundation, as well. Then there’s “Farewell, Good Bye,” a touching finale featuring Hyungjin offering an irresistibly romantic turn that’s sure to melt the heart of even the most hardened and circumspect listener.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso