Out November 8, 2019, CD Release Concert Friday, November 15 at The Jazz Gallery, NYC
“This may be the first you’ve heard of Mr. Sun, a tenor saxophonist, but that will soon change… Mr. Sun’s playing develops an identity of its own, equal parts direct and discursive.”–Giovanni Russonello, The New York Times
The Sustain of Memory, out November 8, 2019 via Endectomorph Music, is saxophonist and composer Kevin Sun’s ambitious follow-up to his acclaimed 2018 debut release Trio. Featuring three extended compositions for trio, quartet, and quintet – with trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, pianist Dana Saul, bassists Simón Willson and Walter Stinson, and drummers Dayeon Seok and Matt Honor– the double album shows Sun’s commitment to the formal and dramatic possibilities of small-group formats as well as his emergent vision within them.Trio, (described as “rich and endeavoring” by Audiophile Audition), found him navigating through an assortment of musical puzzles and mazes with his trio counterparts Stinson and Honor. Following the release of Trio, Sun continued pursuing his creative direction during a period of self-reflection and meditation. Over the course of 2018 he sought personal expression through space and sound and eventually wrote the two hours of music that make up The Sustain of Memory.
“I’ve always been drawn to sprawling, encyclopedic or maximalist works of art,” says Sun, “Just the idea of creating a complete world that contains its own logic, but that threatens to over-spill beyond its borders—that’s been appealing to me.”
The first piece on the album, “The Middle of Tensions,”is also the most recent, composed in the latter half of 2018. Featuring the trio plus the addition of pianist Dana Saul, the work progresses through six movements uncovering new emotional valences in the shadowy post-tonal language favoured by the jazz and improvised music vanguard of recent years. Although much has been said about Sun’s study of jazz music in its earlier decades, his explicit interest in contemporary improvisers like Steve Lehman, Matt Mitchell, and Craig Taborn comes to the fore here.
Saul, whose September 2019 album Ceiling features Sun, imbues the quartet with his kaleidoscopic harmonic sense; the two met as roommates at the Banff Workshop for Jazz and Creative Music in 2012, and reconnected after Sun moved to New York City in 2015.
“For a while, I had a sort of phobia about writing music for chordal instruments—almost like a fear of being locked into something,” says Sun, “but that’s not an issue with Dana because he constantly reinvents and extrapolates, so it’s always a surprise.”
The dense, exploratory passages of “The Middle of Tensions” conclude with a tonal sublimation of the musical events that came before, setting the stage for the second piece, Sun’s “Circle, Line” for trio. Set across twelve short movements that employ all possible instrumental combinations within the trio (including duets and solo pieces), this song cycle’s starkness and sonic transparency offer a pleasing contrast.
“The piece sort of reflects its formal patterning,” says Sun. “It’s fairly austere sonically, and there’s really not very much explicit deviation from the composition aside from individual embellishment and occasional melodic improvisation.”
Sun’s infrequent and informal studies with modern saxophone titan Mark Turner are an unmistakable influence on the piece, which, according to Sun, is also a study in the movement of voices. Although not always tonal, “Circle, Line” centres on the different kinds of relationships between melodic voices—whether they move together up and down or go in different directions or at different times, and how that creates a feeling of depth and space within the ensemble.
Given the abstract conception behind the piece, these dozen miniatures share the quality of both being outside of an obvious idiom while evoking certain sound worlds; the first movement has a medieval chant-like quality, while the seventh movement sounds like a strangely understated rock band flattened to its barest melodic elements. Taken as a whole, they represent both the next step and a departure for Sun’s trio as they continue to personalise the time-honoured format.
The album’s final piece, “The Rigors of Love,”occupies the entirety of the second disc and introduces a new rhythm team of Saul (piano), Simón Willson(bass), and Dayeon Seok (drums), plus the addition of trumpeter Adam O’Farrill (2019 DownBeat Critics Poll Rising Star) to the front-line. First premiered at New York City’s The Jazz Gallery in May 2018, the title of the work was inspired by the process of composition itself, which, from Sun’s perspective, requires both sustained feeling and discipline.
“After ‘Circle, Line,’ essentially I wanted to write something with more of an emotional thrust to it,” Sun says, “while still using what I’d learned about composition and form from writing the trio piece.”
Orchestrated in three movements, the piece foregrounds a range of ensemble colours and moods that emphasise inwardness and reflection over surface polish and drama. Clarinet and muted trumpet appear and re-appear throughout the piece to indicate shifts in emotional register, and epic solos surface from virtuosic ensemble textures and vice-versa.
In writing “Rigors,” Sun was also mindful of an aphorism attributed to Duke Ellington: The composition begins when the musicians have been chosen. In this case, Sun assembled a different cast of musicians to better suit the nature of the music, which would be more spacious, patient, and subject to interpretation than his more circumscribed works.
Joining him in the front-line is trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, who Ambrose Akinmusire has called his “favourite trumpet player of any generation right now” in a recent JazzTimes profile. Sun and O’Farrill first played together in a weekly ensemble at the Manhattan School of Music Pre-college in 2009, and their reunion on this album amply displays their longstanding chemistry. Pianist Dana Saul, who has employed Sun in the pianist’s own sextet, brought his compositional instincts to bear upon the musical proceedings. Sun notes that Saul exceeded expectations by composing his own piano parts for large portions of “The Rigors of Love.”
“There were sections where I didn’t specify a piano part or chord symbols, so he devised parts, notated them, and brought them to rehearsals, gigs, and the recording session,” says Sun. “That’s dedication.”
Concerning the rhythm team, Sun’s history with each player inspired him to pair them for the ensemble: Sun and bassist Simón Willson were bandmates since their days together at New England Conservatory, where they performed and recorded with co-led ensembles Great on Paper and Earprint. Sun met drummer Dayeon Seok in New York through a mutual friend, and the two became close collaborators in the co-led quartet Mute. Sun emphasised their flexibility and tasteful contributions across a wide range of musical settings.
“I wanted to put them together and take advantage of their flexibility,” says Sun. “I could write sections that swung in a conventional or traditional fashion and also have sections that were more open and idiomatically un-tethered.”
Sun avers that The Sustain of Memory is a lot of music to take in, but he sees it as part of the process of being a blossoming musician with something personal to share.
“Where I am now, I’m OK with being a bit messy or over-extended if it means I’m going to grow and learn as an artist, which is why I documented this period,” he says. “I hope that people feel some sense of immersion when listening; I’d want nothing more than to give the feeling of stepping into another world, as my favourite artists do.”
Kevin Sun is a saxophonist living in New York City. His trio, established in 2016 and comprising bassist Walter Stinson and drummer Matt Honor, has released the acclaimed Trioand performs regularly around the city. Sun plays in a number of co-led ensembles, including Earprint and Mute. His creative work to date has attracted attention from leading critical publications, including The New York Times, The Village Voice, DownBeat, The New York City Jazz Record, Audiophile Audition, PopMatters, and Stereogum, among others. Sun is in demand as a sideperson on the New York jazz and improvised music scenes, and he has performed with a variety of small ensembles and larger ensembles, most notably the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble and Brian Krock’s Big Heart Machine. He has also performed extensively across China and serves as Artistic Director of the Blue Note China Jazz Orchestra, which performs bimonthly at Blue Note Beijing.