Song Yi Jeon
Photo by Alex de Brabant
Emerging Masters

Song Yi Jeon: “That’s what I have to do”

Short Profile

Name: Song Yi Jeon
DOB: 28 August 1984
Place of birth: South Korea
Occupation: Vocalist

Song Yi, how would you describe your uniquely mesmerizing style of jazz singing?

I consider my instrument to be my voice. The biggest benefit of being a vocalist is that we are instruments that can speak with words, and when I perform, whether that’s with an orchestra, a band, or solo, I am the melody instrument. Although other musicians also have their parts to lead, my part is the melody.

It sounds a bit like vocal jazz; involving sounds and syllables instead of words and phrases.

I wouldn’t exactly call it vocal jazz or scat singing, but you’re right that the language I use, the notes and syllables and sounds, is similar to traditional vocal jazz singers, but I have a more contemporary style. Depending on the music, I choose different syllables to sing. I can be very free, I do a lot of improvisation, I can just sing whatever comes out of my mouth. I can just be a part of the band. I always found it a bit sad that in traditional jazz performances, the vocalist would come out, sing a specific song, and then leave the stage. But then that’s when the party would start, that’s when the other musicians would start improvising and having fun. Jazz musicians put so much value in improvisation, and I wanted to be part of that too, I want to be out there celebrating with them and improvising, feeling free and accepted as a musician.

“There are many ways to approach this craft and I’m trying to see how I can do both, extremely free and extremely tight.”

So there’s no set structure to what you’re singing necessarily?

Well, yes and no. I have a background as a classical composer, so I used to write out everything, every part, every detail for myself, for the piano, for the drums, everything. And when I’m performing or touring an album, there are still parts of songs that are written out, especially when I’m doing what I think of as a kind of introduction to each song. But then there’s also improvisation involved, just not completely from the beginning to the end. Then there are other projects where I don’t write down anything; sometimes I’ll think about a concept or a theme, whether that’s musical or just something I’m feeling or a subject I’m interested in. There are many ways to approach this craft and I’m trying to see how I can do both, extremely free and extremely tight.

What’s going on in your head when you’re improvising? Are you thinking about the next note, or are you able to completely let go?

When I improvise, I think I'm in both states. A lot of people say not to think when you’re singing this way, so I try to be flexible, I try to be liberal… But I can’t help it, it’s natural for me to analyze what I’ve just sung or spoken! I find that when I’m on stage, I’m trying to be aware of what is happening around me with the other musicians, so that I can be reactive or interactive with them.

I guess that’s the thing about jazz — it’s incredibly collaborative, and as a vocalist, you can’t exactly perform it entirely on your own. You perform in a duo, a trio, and even a quintet!

Yes, I have a lot of projects! (Laughs) That’s actually the reason I left classical composition for jazz, because I just pictured myself sat at a desk alone when I’m 80 years old. That’s what life is like as a classical composer and I didn’t want that for myself. Jazz is very collaborative and what I love most is that everybody is different. So when I’m working with different musicians I love to get to know them to see how they play, what’s their style, what do they excel at that I can highlight, and how can we improvise together. You know, the drummer has a huge ability to change the mood of a piece. The pianist holds the harmony in their hands. Everybody has their own spot, so it’s really important that we trust each other, that we rehearse a lot so that when we do go on stage and improvise, it works.

How else has trust played into your success as a musician? I guess there’s also a trust between the performer and the audience?

I hadn’t thought of that, but you’re totally right! I’m bringing a style that is maybe a little bit different from people's expectations. I'm not bringing the expected vocal jazz music, so my hope is definitely that they can put their trust in what the musician brings on the stage. Trust is a really big element for me — with my family, if I don’t feel like I have that trust with them, how could I continue to do what I do as a daughter? With my music students, how could they learn from me if they don’t trust what I’m delivering to them? Trust makes this much greater, much bigger than just one person.

“I’m bringing a style that is a little bit different from people’s expectations, so my hope is definitely that they can put their trust in what the musician brings on the stage. Trust is a really big element for me.”

You recently got to spend a lot of time learning from and being mentored by the great jazz singer Dianne Reeves through the Rolex Mentor & Protégé Arts Initiative. How did that expand your understanding of what trust can mean?

It’s been amazing to be able to spend so much time with her. I’ve joined a couple of tours last year and I’m going to visit her in Denver soon. And that sense of trust we were talking about, I mean, she really pushes me to do anything I want to do. She’s really helping to instill a new kind of confidence in me, whether that’s collaborating with a certain musician or visual artist, or indulging in a different style of improvisation… Dianne has said that it's very interesting that I want to move from one thing to another and explore a completely new world at every opportunity, you know? I get bored easily, and Dianne saw this, and is pushing me to explore more and more, to get deeper into everything I’m doing. She is a true mentor in an artistic sense, but she’s also showing me a kind of emotional trust that is really inspiring.

What do you mean?

Well, for example when I’m on the road with her as part of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, some of her band members she’s been playing with for 20 or 30 years. It’s amazing, it’s a real friendship. These musicians trust her so much — it’s not about who is famous, or how many notes you play, how fast you can play, who can improvise the best or who has the most technical skill. It’s about this full trust, this understanding of what the others need. It’s incredible to see, and when I get to be her age, I hope that I can have that same spirit too. That’s where I really learned a lot from her and it is a true privilege to have her be my mentor in this great program.

It sounds like with this style of music, there’s always a way to grow and learn in all of its different aspects.

Absolutely. The thing is, I came from classical music, and when I started discovering this genre, I knew nothing about it. And even today, I’m still learning it! There is so much to absorb, to listen to, to observe… But from the moment I heard contemporary jazz stuff for the first time, I knew. That’s it, that’s what I have to do, that’s what I want to do. That’s the one I want to dig into.