Bongwool Lee’s Jazz Epiphany


Bongwool Lee grew up playing classical music before switching to jazz.

(Photo: Courtesy of Artist)

Call it a revelatory jazz moment. As a classical music prodigy in Seoul, South Korea, pianist Bongwool Lee was listening to the radio one day when she heard the graceful but sturdy sound of Oscar Peterson.

“I’d listened to the radio every day since I was very young,” said Lee, who today is based in New York. “When I heard Oscar Peterson on the radio, it changed my life immediately. I was 16 and I decided to become a jazz musician, even though I didn’t know anything about chords.”

Still, Lee pivoted from the classical world into the land of jazz, with one of her first album purchases being Oscar Peterson Trio + One with Clark Terry.

Lee’s next stop was to head to New York to fully immerse herself in the jazz scene. “I had a lot of passion for the music, and New York is the best city for jazz musicians,” she said shortly after the release of her all-instrumental debut, My Singing Fingers (Origin), with bassist Luques Curtis and drummer Kendrick Scott. “I was planning to study in New York [she earned her master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music in 2012], but more than that, I wanted to feel the city itself that is full of jazz culture. I could study and practice during the daytime, and I could go to random clubs to listen to music at night. That’s how I knew I wanted Luques and Kendrick to play with me.”

Her trio album teems with her keyboard velocity and captures her improvisational leaps within a program of eight originals and one standard. “I tend not to make a plan meticulously,” she said. “And I try not to get used to some specific situations or circumstances. I try to take on variable situations willingly because that gives me a lot of ideas. The same story with the same ending can be boring. When I play, I don’t think about any scales or licks. I just try to sing.”

Keyboardist Taylor Eigsti, who is the associate producer of the album, said that Lee’s music is a remarkable balance of the accessible and unpredictable. “Bongwool is a great composer who writes heartfelt songs,” he said. “She’s coming out of a cool place where she’s exploring her creative, adventurous concepts. It’s as if when people actually hear her music, that’s when it gets born, when her own sound comes through.”

Eigsti met Lee five years ago, when she sought him out for piano instruction. “She used to be shy, almost too shy in the lessons,” he said. “But gradually she came out of her shell to let the world see what she offered.”

On her album, Lee moves through a variety of soundscapes, including the swinging and dancing dazzle of the title track, the aggressive launch into “Repeating Nightmares” with Scott’s tumultuous beats, the melancholic lyricism on her “How’s Up There?” (an homage to her best friend who died in an accident), her charming championing of the now-discontinued perfume (“Feminite Du Bois”) and the beautiful, classical-like “Burning Incense,” a solo piano piece that ends the album.

One highlight is her original “Why Not,” which features the bandleader on funky, soulful Fender Rhodes. “I love jazz, but I also love hip-hop, hard rock, soul and funk,” Lee said. “I’m a big fan of D’Angelo. I went to his concert a few years ago and that inspired me to write [‘Why Not’]. I’ve always dreamed of recording this kind of style, with simple instrumentation and a soul-funk groove.” DB

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