There are moments on Youn Sun Nah’s eighth studio album, Lento, that take the listener’s breath away. The Korean vocalist does amazing, supernatural things with her voice, as if possessed.
Each and every song on Lento is different. If Nah’s name weren’t prominently attached to the ACT Music’s June 11, 2013 release, one would assume this were a compilation album by various artists.
It is only when Nah revisits her homeland and heritage in the Korean folk lullaby, “Arirang,” that her origins become clear. Still she can’t help but also implant an inventive, clever international twist with harmonious American country and classical backbeats.
Otherwise, this could be a Parisian artist touching lightly upon “Hurt,” a 1940s starlet finishing up the next musical adaptation soundtrack in “Empty Dream,” or an asylum escapee chasing nightmares (“Momento Magico,” “Ghost Riders In The Sky”).
Lento’s already receiving great press and hitting the top of the charts over in South Korea and Europe, #1 on iTunes. This is a very well-known and well-celebrated jazz artist outside America, with several successful prior albums, most recently Same Girl. Same Girl went certified gold in France when it came out in 2010.
Only a band of special musicians would suffice to blend in with a voice as unique and quixotic as Nah’s. She enlisted most of the same guys to play on “Lento” as she did “Same Girl”: gig partner, guitarist Ulf Wakenius, bassist Lars Danielsson, and percussionist Xavier Desandre-Navarre. They don’t just play on her album, either. They’re equal measures, melding with her vocal aspirations in a perfect marriage of fusion ambition.
Much of the difference in the different-sounding songs is due to a new addition, French accordionist Vincent Peirani, who is resplendent in “Empty Dream.” Peirani’s voice is quite evident and welcome on this album; he co-wrote two of the songs, “Empty Dream” and “Full Circle.” Together, Peirani and Nah literally create a new jazz genre, combining French classical with emo folk-jazz. His accordion work fits in with the ponderous jazz quality better than most established instruments.
There’s scatting, then there’s what Nah does in the exceptional, feral stand-out, “Momento Magico.” Nah takes barely controlled aggression and mind-altering possession out in emotional cathartic embankments, twisting her voice like a rag. She and guitarist Wakenius bounce off each other in an unearthly scat and scratch that’s revolutionary. Her breakneck, cadaverous speed toward morning light surpasses everybody else’s meager groans, and raised the hair on my arms.
We’ve all heard Stan Jones’ “Ghost Riders In The Sky,” but never quite the way Nah does it. (She does a mean Nine Inch Nails too, lifting all heaviness into another heavenly world in “Hurt.”) She goes spare, very spare, and very deep to torture her voice further, clinging lasciviously at the darkest spot of temptation. Originally, this song made famous by Johnny Cash tells a scary story as a matter-of-fact narration. Youn Sun Nah falls in a sick kind of love with the ghost writers and personally throws herself into every lyrical syllable, her voice careening, cresting, and verging on cracking with ecstasy.
Every jazz singer should give this album a listen. This is true release by a multi-character artist who can become whatever the music calls for.