Live review: Sun-Mi Hong group's spontaneity wows a sold-out Vortex

Gail Tasker
Thursday, April 4, 2024

It’s the Korean-born drummer's quintet’s debut at East London's Vortex, and the club is packed out. But the lack of legroom is more than compensated for by the almost tangible space and dreamy ambience which characterises Hong’s music...

Sun-Mi Hong
Sun-Mi Hong

Steven Cropper

“These are very fresh,” bandleader and drummer Sun-Mi Hong announces, as she catches her breath between tunes. It’s her quintet’s first time at the Vortex, having completed a string of European touring dates, and the room is packed out. But the lack of legroom is more than compensated for by the almost tangible space and dreamy ambience which characterises Hong’s music.

The two sets are most certainly fresh, consisting mostly of new, pre-recorded material. It’s a rare treat to experience music with that just-out-the-box spontaneity, layered within the mature, synchronised sound of a well-seasoned band. The line-up is as follows: Hong on drums, Alistair Payne on trumpet, Nicolò Ricci on tenor saxophone, Chaerin Im on piano, and Alessandro Fongaro on double bass. The quintet performs as one, but with each member’s playing style shining through via the spacious arrangements. Well-versed in writing for quintet, Hong’s third and most recent quintet album, Third Page: Resonance, is out on Edition Records.

 Much like her playing, which is dynamic and varied, Hong’s compositions are full of twists and turns. In ‘Escapism’, Im begins with a stunning, Bill Evans-like introduction, almost a piece in itself. The horns follow close behind with a slow, treading melody, reminiscent of the iconic Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman pairing, plaintive and melancholic. Another tune ‘Care Less’, is a part-strut, part trepidatious walk, with a constant build that sends each soloist into spirals, led by Fongaro’s driving, somewhat menacing bass line. Hong’s drumming in this is sublime; powerful yet restrained, a steady groove punctuated with well-timed, explosive accents. A highlight in the second set consists of Ricci and Payne alternating between soloing and circular breathing - Hong sits to one side, nodding and swaying throughout, fully immersed. 

The music is moody, flitting between dark and heavy and humorous and bright. Hong mentions at one point the arduous process of writing ‘Escapism’, one of her first ever compositions, at a challenging time when she’d just moved to the Netherlands from South Korea. Yet despite this difficulty, which would put off many a musician, there’s a natural fluidity which embodies Hong’s music, sustained by the unified sensibilities of her four talented collaborators. 

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