Kang Tae Hwan was a name in the world of jazz entirely unfamiliar to me prior to this summer, when I read the Right Honorable Nathaniel Roe's excellent article on Korean experimental music, covering its early stages to its present fertility ("Sweet Seoul music," Wire, May 2010). An extraordinary saxophone player, Hwan is one of the grandfathers of the Korean musical avant-garde after the late taepyongso/hojok player Kim Seok Chul, with whom he collaborated. According to Nat, the great achievement of the Kang Tae Hwan trio (active from 1978 to 2004, I believe) was its marriage of a cosmpolitan openness with traditional Korean shamanism, touring outside Korea and working alongside Western musicians. The group's stature can be measured in part by the fact that they remain the only experimental musicians to perform at a major Korean cultural event, the 1988 Seoul Olympics, riding high on an initial wave of Democratic reforms that would quickly peter out into the original status quo. Korean experimentalists returned underground, recording very little--but, strangely, not particularly caring one way or another who heard their music.
The Shamanic principles are apparent in Hwan's performance style, which can be seen today in numerous Youtube videos. "Kang would typically perform cross-legged, with bare feet and closed eyes," writes Nat. "His tone is as rich and complex as a vintage wine, with layered overtones collapsing into one another, and notes stretched with circular breathing for minutes on end." It's little wonder that we find him in the 1990s collaborating with the likes of Ned Rothenberg, who not only utilizes the same extended techniques but fully admits a strong Asian influence in his own playing.
Live, a duo recording with the great vocalist Sainkho Namtchylak, was released in 1993 on the Japanese label Free Improvisation Network and is now out of print. If, like me, you've only heard Hwan's Seven Breath (2002), Live will open your eyes to another side of the saxophonist's artistry. Namtchylak is a Tuvan-born singer who has appeared on numerous improvised sessions, lending her intimate knowledge of the Siberian traditions to those adventurous enough to work with her; When the Sun is Out You Don't See the Stars (FMP, 1992), a collaboration with Peter Kowald, Werner Ludi and Butch Morris, is a particularly successful entry in her catalogue. Hwan and Namtchylak complement each other so well that Teruto Soejima, who penned the liner notes for Live, went so far as to call their performance "the crystallization of the Asian mentality." Whatever that may be, it is certain that this is a sorely underappreciated recording illuminated by Hwan's repetitive, incantatory alto and Namtchylak's bestial but utterly precise vocals; indeed, her machine-gun trillings at the upper register and rhythmic grunts put the caterwauling of a Maja Ratjke or a Diamanda Galas to shame. Hwan shuns pyrotechnics and instead aims for a rich, hypnotic, enveloping sound full of throaty reverberations and microtonal explorations, producing the same effect achieved by his partner's windpipe.
By the way, Sainkho has two new CDs out on Leo: Not Quite Songs, a duo with electro-acoustic performer Nick Sudnick, and Terra, a recording from the Vilnius Jazz Festival in the Lithuanian capital with Wolfgang Puschnig (reeds) and Paul Urbanek (piano); I personally find the latter a little too 'smooth jazz' for my taste, but hearing Namtchylak in a more lyrical vein is not without its charms.
Kang Tae Hwan & Sainkho Namtchylak - Live (Free Improvisation Network, 1993)
Special thanks to Brian Turner for selling me this great disc for $1 in the last 15 minutes of the WFMU Record Fair.
From Sainkho Namtchylak & Nick Sudnick - Not Quite Songs (Leo, 2010)
From Namtchylak / Puschnig / Urbanek - Terra (Leo, 2010)