It's hard to improve on a trio that features Aaron Parks on piano and Nate Woods on drums but, when bassist Joonsam Lee was ready to release his debut album as a leader, he beefed up an already formidable line-up by adding Ralph Alessi on trumpet, Yvonnick Prene on harmonica, Ben Monder on guitar, and the fascinating additions of Yeahwon Shin on vocals and Chungeun Han on the bamboo flute. The trio, however, remains the core.
Released on Origin Records, "A Door" (Origin 82716) is a collection of compositions written by Joonsam - with one exception - from 2007 onward. This trio is the perfect format with the enhancement of the guest artists.
Joonsam's own repeating bass note introduces "Whirlwind" as Parks' piano and Alessi's trumpet add the melody while Joonsam and Wood get a target-lock on the grove. Of course, Aaron Parks commands attention in any situation but Joonsam and Wood form the great triad that is a delight to hear.
Ralph Alessi's trumpet serves as the lightning in this whirlwind as the rhythm section works the vortex. A long pause is the eye of the storm until bass, piano and drums begin again. High energy here. Pay attention to Nate Wood's closing patterns. "Zadrak" follows with guitarist Ben Monder joining. The hook grabs you from the beginning. The piano melody is captivating and Joonsam's bass line is fascinating. I again found myself digging Wood's rhythmic choices and was thrilled to experience this trio. Ben Monder's guitar work is subdued and flows extremely well with the song. The break fuses the trio together and sets up a gorgeous guitar lead. Good God, ya'll.
"Boa Noite" is a splendid piece. The trio sets up the warm movement and is joined by the talented and soulful harmonica of Yvonnick Prene. Prene never disappoints and his light touch is perfect here.
Also light in touch is Parks, who is a soulful as you could wish. Joonsam and Wood work a slow swing that brings Parks and Prene back together in exquisite harmony. Love this.
"23451" is a 54-second excursion from the trio and Ralph Alessi. Listen to it until you get it. You'll get it.
"2 Tunes and Off-hour Waiting Area" starts with a heavy groove from the trio and it is some fine stuff. Alessi adds his trumpet for the melody as the trio works the groove. The piece is a well-written number and Joonsam deserves recognition for his composing as much as his performing. Parks solos at mid-point and brings real life and emotion. His melodic turns with Alessi are splendid stuff. Even Alessi joins the rhythm to close the song.
Yeahwon Shin adds her lovely vocals to "Love Trauma." There are no lyrics but the meaning is perfectly clear in her intonation and delicacy. The piano adds a melancholy that sharpens the vocals. The song is painful and beautiful. The understated rhythm allows full exposure of the melody and harmonies. It is sweet. It is sad. It doesn't leave you.
Ralph Alessi's muted trumpet returns for "Ice Skate." It is a well-painted image of gliding and spinning with a carefree feel in the repetition of the rhythm and piano lines as the trumpet gets expression in a light-hearted romp.
"23452" is a return to the trio plus Alessi in tonal excursion.
"Doraji the Flower" is a traditional song of Korea. Chung Eun Han adds his bamboo flute in the piece that is completely Korean. It is far different from western melodies and is even distinguishable from Chinese and Japanese tradition. The trio is in fine support of Han's flute who carries the melody exquisitely. Parks performs beautifully with and without Han. Together, they are absorbing.
Joonsam and Wood play the rhythm so languidly and - dare I say - lovingly. It is reverent and warm. Rapturous.
"Where the Water Comes Together with Other Water" is the longest piece on the album. The drip-dropping of the piano creates the image as Monder's guitar fashions rivulets flowing toward unity with the piano. Joonsam rolls the bass lines along in ever-widening streams.
The song then breaks into open expressions from the trio until Monder returns on guitar. I find myself intrigued and captured by the way Joonsam writes. As familiar with Western music as an Easterner may be, there is a cultural, musical heritage that invigorates and informs Eastern music that Westerners do not possess. This is part of the beauty of musicians coming together and hearing Eastern themes with Western rhythms and touches.
The album closes with "Airport Music." It is only the trio of Joonsam, Parks and Wood that take us home. Fitting.
The melody and rhythm seem tired, maybe exhausted, from the travel and the touring. Not even a walking pace, the rhythm intentionally drags and cannot wait to get home. The melody is a loving reminder of what has been experienced and what will come again as the sounds of the airport crowd opens and closes the tune.
Joonsam indeed takes us through "A Door" in his debut release. Full of warm affection and bright imagery, the music is a revelation of who Joonsam is and what the world looks like through his eyes and what it sounds like through his ears. It is a world of fragile beauty and tender moments to be expressed vividly and with passion.