South Korean jazz singer Youn Sun Nah
Korean singer Youn Sun Nah has been described by Le Monde newspaper as "a UFO touching the universe of jazz with a magnificent voice and passionate originality".
Too modest to admit to the magnificent voice bit, she accepts she’s different from your usual deep voiced and sultry jazz suspects.
“I’m Asian and you might think that doesn’t really fit with jazz,” she admits. But she says she’s found acceptance as a singer in the jazz family - a musical universe that has allowed her to be herself.
Her originality lies in an unusual mix of scat and swing that draws on a huge vocal range - rom screaming Banshee high notes to soothing lullabies that can move you to tears.
The French love her. She regularly plays to packed houses here and abroad and has just brought out her eighth album Lento to rave reviews. The previous album, Same Girl, reached no. 1 in the French jazz charts.
And yet when she arrived in France in 1995 to study jazz and French chanson she scarcely knew what she’d signed up for.
Just before leaving for Paris, a friend suggested she try jazz.
“I asked him what jazz was, and he said it was the root of popular music. I thought yeah, that sounds interesting, maybe I could try that,” says Nah with a laugh.
Jazz only really took off in Korea about 15 years ago, she explains.
“After the war (in the 1950’s) everything had to be rebuilt. Music, hobbies weren’t a priority,” she says.
But now the jazz scene is developing fast back there, and Nah is playing a role.
With one foot in Paris and one in Seoul, she sees herself as “a bridge between the two cultures.”
She’s backed by some of Europe’s top jazz musicians and has been playing with Swedish guitarist Ulf Wakenius (Oscar Peterson’s former guitarist) for five years.
He wrote the song Momento Magico, a rapid scat bonanza which sends Nah into full Banshee mode, and one of the highlights on the Lento album.
“I think he forgot to leave me time to breathe,” she laughs. But says she loves the challenge of improvising.
Playing with Wakenius is like “being on a magic carpet…. you never know where it’ll take you”.
“Sometimes you think you don’t dare…but I’m lucky to have this support. They encourage me to go for it. Sometimes it works…sometimes it doesn’t.”
For the moment Nah’s gamble seems to be paying off rather well.
Youn Sun Nah plays at Theâtre du Châtelet on 25 March.