Sunday, February 12, 2017

Immigrants Songs

In this heightened time of insecurity about immigration in the United States, we often forget why people risk their lives to come here. Whether their reasons include escaping harsh treatment or to follow dreams, mothers, fathers, son and daughters still cross numerous borders to build new existences.

In the instance of Žan Tetičkovič, his is a story of following his dreams from his native Slovenia to study music in New York City. The drummer and composer who goes by the name Jean John has self-released his debut American album.  Titled "The Port of Life", he started creating the 15 track-75 minute program on his arrival in the New World in 2011 to study at The New School.  The handsome booklet includes "The New Colossus" by poet Emma Lazarus which features the lines emblazoned on our minds "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." Jean John returned home to  record the album with a septet that includes Alba Nacinovich (vocals), Lenart Crečič (tenor saxophone), Tomaž Gajšt (trumpet, flugelhorn), Jani Moder (guitar), Marko Črnčec (piano - he has an album for Whirlwind Recordings), and Myles Sloniker (acoustic bass) plus the Janus Atelier String Quartet (violinists Matija Crečič and Nejc Avbelj, violist Barbara Grahor, and cellist Zoran Bičanin).

The music tells of the composer's arrival in New York with the first two tracks including the instrumental "The Port of Life, Dusk" followed by "The Narrows Gateway" which is a sonic adventure of landing at Customs.  The first track features the entire ensemble on an uptempo piece that musically tells the story of the immigrant standing on the deck looking at his destination.  With the wordless vocal and uplifting melody, the music has the sound of the Pat Metheny Group as the rhythm section really pulls the band forward with the guitar and voice leading the way while the trumpet, saxophone, and string quartet color the melody.

The next 11 tracks comprise the "Acculturation Suite", a song cycle that blends sounds, voices, short tracks, longer cuts and powerful musicianship.  Opening with "Prelude", an introspective work played by the String Quartet, the Suite follows the drummer through his "Farewell" to the "Euphoria" of following his dream to "Collapse", the realization of how hard it is for someone to uproot himself and how alone he feels. The Strings return for "Intermezzo", a musical real to reflect on the journey and resettlement. The second half of the Suite includes "Alienation" (perhaps a pun) as the composer continues his search.  The music is not as dark as "Collapse", there seems to be light at the end of this tunnel.  Sloniker's powerful and melodic bass introduces "Adjustment"; joined by John's funky drums, the song moves forward on a slinky melody line with the saxophone and guitar leading the way. The leader introduces the last piece in the Suite, "A New Beginning", with a staggering drum solo that slows down and softens for the main melody.  The strings rise in on an circular line played by guitar and piano.  When the rest of the group enters, the music takes off on a celebration of the new "home", the composer nows has his feet on solid ground and his joy rises to the heavens. Once the festivities come to a close, the ensemble returns for the final track, "The Port of Life, Dawn". The voice and piano open as if praying and so does the String Quartet; the music is a reverie that, after five minutes, allows the rhythm section and guitarist to enter. As the music rises to its climax, all the instruments reenter in a triumphant "shout."

Jean John layers certain tracks with sounds and effects plus one particularly strong statement about immigration ("...our origin story") from President Obama, all the more powerful since his presidency ended.  On of the ironies of "The Port of Life" is the composer went back to Slovenia to record the album but the distance from his adopted home makes the music even more powerful.  The ensemble not only interprets the music but imbues much of it with their own desires and their appreciation for John's accomplishments.

Perhaps part of my enjoyment of this album comes from the numerous times I, a second generation American, have attended the Naturalization Ceremony in my home town, a day when immigrants become citizens. It's touching, life-affirming, and it's a bit humbling. "The Port of Life" is an impressive story of determination, of talent, of desire, and of fortitude.  Give it a listen.

For more information, go to

Here's a taste of several tracks:

Vocalist, composer, and arranger Jihye Lee was born in Seoul, South Korea, and came to the United States to study at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA. And study she has done, learning from Ayn Inserto, private lessons from Maria Schneider and Terence Blanchard, and workshops with John Clayton and Robin Eubanks. Since graduation from Berklee, Ms. Lee is completing graduate work at the Manhattan School of Music under the tutelage of Jim McNeely.

With the help of Berklee Professor and trumpeter Greg Hopkins, she assembled a 19-piece orchestra (students and teachers) to record "April" (self-released), her first American album.  Much of the music Ms. Lee created for this project came in response to the sinking of the Korean ferry Sewol which took the lives of over 300 of the 476 passengers and crew; the majority of those who perished were teenage students.  Yet, the songs, while they have elegiac moments, are not filled with anger or long stretches of sadness. The album takes its title from the lovely opening track which is also the month of the tragic event that spurred the composer into action.  But the music, unlike the month T.S. Eliot described in "The Wasteland", as "the cruelest month" is filled with promise, with new life springing out of the earth, days are longer and beginning to be warmer; one hears joy in the dance created by Shannon LeClaire (alto sax) and Allan Chase (soprano sax) and no inkling of the tragedy to follow.

photo: Keith Davis
As this music tells its story, one person's reactions to events happening a world away in her native land, most of the tracks are not centered around solos, save for the longest  on the program.  "Sewol Ho" (12:52) moves away from its opening theme, building to a dissonant climax; then, five "voices" step up to tell their "stories" ranging from the duet of co-producer Hopkins (trumpet) and Jeff Galindo (trombone) to the conversation of Ben Whiting (bass clarinet) with Ms. LeClaire (clarinet) and, finally, Rick DiMuzio (soprano sax) takes the song out. Various instrumental voices move in and out of the melody on "Deep Blue Sea" and, in several instances, it's the sections that carry the melody. DiMuzio solos, this time on tenor sax, and he moves easily over the rhythm section and around the colors provided by the brass and reeds.  He returns to solo on tenor on the following track, "Whirlwind", a piece that is more uptempo and nervous, almost hyper. But he and pianist Alain Mallet are, at turns, calm in this storm as they convey how one can create an emotional oasis in times of heightened tension.

Sean Jones (pictured left) joins the ensemble for the final track, the lovely ballad "You Are Here (Every Time I Think of You)", how flugelhorn carrying both the melody and as the only solo voice.  The song opens with the reeds sans rhythm section playing the initial theme, the flutes frame Jones's melody, dropping away as he moves through the verse into his solo.  The reeds and brass take over for a chorus and Jones returns, this time taking flight as the sections move in and out behind him.  Stick around for the lovely coda - first, Jones goes it alone and then the ensemble, led by the reeds and brass return to take the piece out with Jones moving over the sound in a flurry of notes.

"April" is an impressive introduction to Jihye Lee, a composer and arranger (she studied vocal performance at Berklee and adds wordless vocals to several tracks here) who channeled her emotions to create this music that celebrates life, rarely pausing to mourn. How does one deal with loss of this proportion, a tragedy taking the lives of so many young people?  It's an unanswerable question yet the music serves as a balm.

For more information, go to

Here's the last track from the album:

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