distinguishes the American Songbook -- most of the repertoire
originally appeared in musicals composed between 1920 and 1950
-- is that the interpretations by the era’s greatest musicians
and singers are consistently superior to the original.
cannot be said for the pop and rock era, despite the music’s
enduring popularity. Of course there are exceptions, where the
cover version comes to be preferred to the original: Jose Feliciano’s
take on the commercial release of The Door’s “Light
My Fire;” the Hendrix reinvention of Dylan’s “All
Along the Watchtower, or Sinead O’Conner’s transformation
of Prince’s “Nothing Compares to You;” the Webb
Sister’s sublime rendering of Leonard Cohen’s “If
It Be Your Will,” -- to mention a few of the few. But in
general, rock and pop covers typically fall short of the original,
which casts the entire genre in a dubious light in respect to
its content and durability.
an argument to be made that a genre only begins to earn its cachet
when the interpretations consistently disclose hitherto unsuspected
meaning and nuance in the originals? If the mandate of all interpretation
is to bring into unconcealment what is timeless in the music,
is there enough substance in rock and pop to guarantee their afterlife
or will they disappear once their time has passed?
Youn Sun Nah, easily one of the highlights of the 40th edition
of the 2019 Montreal
International Jazz Festival, makes the case that
rock and pop are indeed the stuff of immortality. Her latest album,
Immersion, forcefully repudiates the criticism that contemporary
music does not inspire convincing interpretation.
as she "opens her mouth to sing," it becomes immediately
apparent that Sun Nah’s music comes from a very strange
and fascinating place that begins and ends with her voice that
she uses to sometimes astonishing effect: it can be made to shriek
and evoke horror or whine like a hurting cat. And when the occasion
calls for it, it can put out enough voltage to shatter glass,
and then reassemble it, which is in direct contrast to her wraith-like
appearance on stage and barely audible speaking voice.
revelatory voicings derive from an exceptional vocal range and
extraordinary ability to probe a song’s lyrics. Like an
opera singer, she knows how to contour and contract her vowels
and to turn a simple phrase into the finest filigree. In short,
it doesn’t take long to realize that there’s not much
Sun Nah can’t do. She’s at home in all the genres
of contemporary music, and that includes the Korean songbook.
From time to time one catches the faint echo of the oriental gong
in her song along with a nostalgia for the (interval thin) pentatonic
scale. (the black keys on the piano in the key of C).
features significant original material and covers of songs that
will make you forget the original. Her reinvention of “Isn’t
It a Pity” effectively condemns the George Harrison original
to oblivion. Her interpretation is so novel she makes the case
that she deserves a writing credit. And when it comes to mining
the lyrics for maximum effect, her version of “Mercy Mercy
Me ” (Marvin Gaye) will leave you convinced you’re
hearing it for the first time. Sun Nah doesn’t just reconstruct
the lyric, she burrows into it and then devours it until it becomes
a part of her, until she owns it, at which point she can share
it. Sun Nah is one of those rare suns that provide some much needed
cred to a genre that, unlike the standards, has yet to secure
a sustainable future. Among Immersion’s note-worthies
are Leonard Cohen’s heart-felt “Hallelujah”
and Albeniz’s “Asturias” which Sun Nah yanks
out of its conventional Iberian orbit and sends into the cosmos.
a better sense of what makes Sun Nah tick, think Jessie Norman,
Laurie Anderson and Portishead mixed in a blender and poured into
backed up by two versatile musician-collaborators of the highest
order. The irreplaceable Tomek Miernowski on guitar, piano and
synth while Rémi Vignolo doubles up on the double bass
purists, Immersion offers wonderfully satisfying limpidity
that is far too often short-shrifted in popular music, exquisite
separation of instruments, timely modulations in texture and tonality,
and extensive use of the most important note in music: the rest
or caesura. En Espagnol – silencio.
Youn Sun Nah is unconsciously self-effacing, making sure that
music deserving of much wider circulation speaks for itself. As
to her most lasting contribution, she makes explicit the largely
unnoticed non-occurrence that there are only a handful of songs
in contemporary music where the cover is superior to the original.
If rock and pop are to ensure their future standing, others, in
the narrow wake of Youn Sun Nah, will have to step up to the plate.
Sun Nah and Maurin Auxéméry, the festival’s
eclectic music programmer -- gomabseubnida.