Pianist Mina Cho Solidifies Her Unique Fusion of Jazz with Korean Traditional Music on "Beat Mirage," Set for February 9 Release
The deeper that Boston-based pianist Mina Cho delves into her Korean roots, the more personal and distinctive her music becomes. With "Beat Mirage," which introduces her Grace Beat Quartet, the Seoul-born jazz composer refines and distills rhythmic and thematic concepts she's been exploring in larger ensembles; "Beat Mirage" seamlessly integrates traditional Korean percussion into a jazz rhythm section.
RICHMOND, Calif., Jan. 4, 2024 Mina Cho's startlingly fresh approach to jazz fusion reaches its culmination with "Beat Mirage," her fifth album and the debut of her Grace Beat Quartet. Supported by bassist Max Ridley, drummer Yeongjin Kim and percussionist Insoo Kim, the Boston (by way of Seoul) pianist and composer makes bold new strides in her career-long quest to bridge the musical traditions of Korean gugak and American jazz.
"What is Korean jazz? What makes Korean jazz?" Cho found he"rself asking. "Rhythm is very important for this project, and different uses of space." It's for this reason that she created a band that offsets the traditional jazz piano trio with a host of native Korean percussion instruments: the janggu, the sori-buk, the kkwaenggwari and jing gongs. Brought together, they form an imaginative range of sonics that "often blend notated amalgamations of Korean and jazz rhythms."
What is Korean jazz? What makes Korean jazz? Rhythm is very important for this project, and different uses of space.
Rarely can the two sides of that amalgamation be discerned: Cho's music is an entirely original one. The cultural cross-pollination does, however, make it immediately distinctive. Evidence of this requires looking no further than opening "Nacht Song": Even beyond its solemn chant (drawn from the rites of Korean shamanism), the tune is arresting in its use of interlocking rhythms and unique sense of melody and harmony. Other fascinating idiosyncrasies reveal themselves on "Beat Mirage," whose lithe classical-piano veneer belies its frantic percussive accents, and "Parallel Destiny (UnMyung II)," which wraps its stabbing beat cycles in elaborate tendrils of melody. There's even a whiff of Afro-Cuban music on "G-Street Dance," which Cho calls "Latin Gugak jazz."
But "Beat Mirage" is no mere experiment in ethnomusicology. Overlaid on Cho's highly personal sound is the map of a spiritual journey, from the shamanic tones of "Nacht Song" to the gospel music echoes of the closing "If There's a Stage for Me in Heaven." Along the way are passages of tender introspection like "A Bit of Grace" and the ecstatic catharsis of "Prints of Imperfection," presenting an emotional tapestry that's every bit as complex and compelling as the cultural tapestry.
Not to be overlooked is the superlative work of the Grace Beat Quartet. Drawn from Cho's larger Gugak Jazz Society ensemble, the rhythmic powerhouse of Ridley and Yeongjin and Insoo Kim is as smooth and precise as clockwork—no small feat given the intricate and sometimes jagged rhythms they are tasked with. Their ability to make these complexities sound so effortless is, truly, a beat mirage.
Mina Cho was born in Seoul, South Korea on August 20, 1981—and, seemingly, born to the piano. Her youth offered her the promise of a life as an esteemed concert pianist. While still a student, however, Cho found herself struck by the power of gospel, in both the religious and musical sense.
Majoring in theology at the prestigious Yonsei University in Seoul, Cho continued to nourish her love of gospel music as well. She earned a scholarship to Boston's Berklee College of Music to study the music formally, a pursuit that led her to discover jazz. She earned her degrees in film scoring and jazz composition, ultimately earning both master's and doctorate degrees in the latter.
Gospel never ceased to be a passion of Cho's, however; she worked as an accompanist at several churches in the Boston area. Nor did she leave behind the gugak tradition when she left Korea: At Somerville Community Baptist Church, where she currently serves as music director (and her husband is the pastor), Cho leads a gospel jazz band whose instrumentation includes a Korean ajaeng (bowed zither). Naturally she began to explore all of those possibilities, and how to bring them together, in her own music.
Cho's 2010 debut album, "Originality," was a deep dive into the substantial common ground between the gospel and jazz traditions. She recorded a follow-up, "Love Transformation," in 2016, and has also worked extensively with Darrell Katz's Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra. In 2021 and 2023 she released "GreeKorea: Greeting the Moon" and "Samulnori Fantasy: Seasons," which introduced her nine-piece Gugak Jazz Society as a vehicle for merging its two titular traditions. It is that band's offspring that produced the Grace Beat Quartet and "Beat Mirage," which, Cho says, "fulfills my long-standing ambition to create a platform where traditional Korean and jazz musicians can organically exchange ideas for composition and improvisation."
Mina Cho will be performing a Lunar New Year Celebration Concert at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, on Thursday 2/15; and a Black History Month Celebration with a Community Gospel Choir Concert, Somerville MA (Somerville Community Baptist Church), on Saturday 2/17. Mina Cho's Grace Beat Quartet will present selections from "Beat Mirage" in New York (St. Paul's Chapel of Trinity Church, 209 Broadway) on Sunday 8/4. The Grace Beat Quartet and Gugak Jazz Society will participate in the K-Festival (Boston) in September and the 10th Corée d'ici festival (Montpellier, France) in October. Updates on the upcoming performances for the CD release concerts and Canada-Korea Co-Creation Project will be announced on the website.