by Nick Fernandez
With dim red lighting and a small but attentive crowd, Hey Rim Jeon's pre-dinner set at the Birdland Jazz Club Wednesday night could have easily been confused with an after-hours jam session downtown. The audience, however, told a different story: While appreciative of each clever phrase or cross-bandstand connection, the gathering of friends and family held their applause until the conclusion of each number and refrained from the vocal outbursts that often occur as the hours pass. To Jeon’s credit, instead of a meandering mélange of impromptu arrangements, she and her trio were our guides on a carefully planned musical exploration celebrating her U.S. album release party.
Introducing Hey Rim Jeon musically reflects the multinational and eclectic experience of the pianist who, born in Seoul, Korea, went from classical prodigy to jazz and popular devotee while at the Berklee College of Music. The album includes standards (“Softly as in a Morning’s Sunrise” and “Autumn Leaves”), impressions of “places you wish to visit, but haven’t yet” (“Prague”), and even a Korean folk song (“Arirang”).
After a slightly rocky start marked by timid playing and delayed communication, the trio found its bearing in “Prague,” the third song of the evening. Ms. Jeon came to life in a rubato introduction that offered panoramic views of imagined beauty—skirting the edges of the city to paint rural greenery and folk dancers. Bassist Luques Curtis and drummer Richie Barshay, high school friends who Ms. Jeon met while at Berklee, joined her in traveling into the city’s center. Mr. Curtis took over Jeon’s lyrical melodies while Barshay offered march-like accompaniment.
Jeon’s promotional material stressed her “unique brand of percussive jazz”—often code for R&B and hip-hop-influenced performances—but it was her eclectic, constantly shifting styles that took center stage. “Softly as in a Morning’s Sunrise” underwent various treatments, including some mischievous vamps, fast swing, R&B, and samba rhythms, while solos spanned bebop phrases, montunos, and bluesy trills. The sonic collage was alternately distracting and mesmerizing.
As the set progressed, Curtis and Barshay easily followed Jeon’s flights of fancy and provided inspiration for others. Curtis often acted as the trio’s rudder with solid vamps and agile solos, while Barshay used all of the tools at his disposal, including five cymbals, the sides and rims of his set, and a music stand. Barshay’s refreshing approach to the jazz drum kit resulted in a soundscape that often resembled “world music” percussion—a fitting timbre for Jeon’s artistic vision. The evening ended with an inspired performance of Jeon’s “Mona Lisa Puzzle,” which showed that, once given a moment to settle, the young trio was deserving of their spot at Birdland.