On the surface, musicians Lee Ju-han and Moon Hae-won seem like the most unlikely of bandmates.
As the son of a Korean diplomat, 48-year-old Lee spent much of his life abroad, more accustomed to speaking English and playing his trumpet in various small bands. On the other hand, 29-year-old Moon was an aspiring vocalist who had never even traveled outside the country until she was well in her twenties and who possessed the dream of becoming a K-pop star since she was a teen.
Despite both their personal and musical backgrounds being at two opposite sides of a spectrum, not to mention the almost 20-year age gap, Lee and Moon came together and formed what became a pioneering act in introducing jazz pop in Korea ― Winterplay.
“I first heard about Hae-won because it’s a very small jazz scene in Korea,” said Lee during an interview at their studio in Itaewon. “I heard about this vocalist who was very young, who was pretty good-looking, and who has a very fantastic vocab for jazz.”
Much inspired by iconic musician Louie Armstrong, who has been credited one of the most influential figures in highlighting jazz as a solo art as well as introducing it to modern listeners, Lee and Moon decided to fuse their love of pop and jazz.
“He (Louie Armstrong) was using jazz as a vehicle,” Lee explained. “We kind of wanted to do the same and get back to the roots in today’s modern sound. In actuality it’s more pop music with jazz colors in it.”
Lee was first introduced to pop music in the fifth grade thanks to his sisters who would come home during the summers after studying abroad and bring back tapes of artists such as The Supremes and The Alan Parsons Project. Already having a love for music, he decided that he would take up the trumpet while attending elementary school in Iran. A few years later Lee and his family moved to Suriname, where he joined “Thalamus,” a jazzy Latin-inspired band, at the age of 12 alongside his bandmates in their 20s.
The aspiring musician eventually found himself graduating from the University of Washington with a degree in mechanical engineering. However, while attending school it was always clear to Lee that his passion and thirst for living a life of music was not going to fade. The still-aspiring musician snatched at any and every opportunity he could to play ― from performing for free in nursing homes to playing his trumpet in the hallways of his dormitory.
After living abroad for nearly three decades, Lee made the tough decision to move back to Korea in 1993 for the first time since he was a child in the hopes of “trying to make money with music.” After years of releasing albums on his own, Lee finally decided to call up Moon ― two years after they first met ― and asked if she was interested in doing a couple of projects together.
“When he called I didn’t really think about it, I just said ‘yes,’” she said. “One of the things that fascinated me the most is remembering all these popular albums that I listened to when I was younger and seeing his name ... he had made quite a name for himself as a trumpet player in Korea. So I just had a really good feeling about teaming up with him, I knew it was going to be a fun experience.”
“When I was growing up, jazz music was virtually non-existent in Korea,” Moon added.
While attending Dankook University as a music major, she was required to participate in a project involving jazz. This was her first taste of the genre, and after hearing the likes of Ella Fitzgerald for the first time, it had forever changed her musical passion.
“I was very lucky to have had this experience,” she said. “It was at this moment where I felt that jazz music just fit me and I fit it, so I completely changed the direction of my music ambitions.”
With Lee as the producer, song writer and trumpet player and Moon taking charge at the mic, the pair decided to finally launch what has now become an internationally successful chic jazz fusion duo.
Prior to the official release of their first album, the two had booked an interview in the hopes of getting their name out there. When it dawned on them, they realized that they had never thought of a name for the band. Needing to quickly come up with a name, the two huddled together in front of a stairwell outside their practice studio to toss around some ideas. “Well, right now it’s winter, and here we are inside playing ... so how about Winterplay?” said Moon, recalling their short-lived brainstorming session that night.
“And that was that. Come to think of it, the whole process only took like 10 minutes,” she said with a chuckle as Lee sat nodding with a smile on his face.
In 2008 Winterplay released its first album “Choco Snow Ball” featuring its English lead track “Melon Man,” a sweet samba flavored pop song sprinkled with Lee’s timely jazz trumpet solo interludes. Since their debut, the two have managed to garner much more attention overseas with its international audience. A year after its debut, the group was signed by Universal Music Japan and has since released albums in more than 25 countries including Japan, Hong Kong, the United Kingdom, Austria and India.
Last summer the duo released its third studio album “Two Fabulous Fools” and the lead track “Shake It Up and Down” beat out the likes of renowned stars such as Bruno Mars, Beyonce and K-pop icons Girls’ Generation by topping the international chart on Hong Kong’s popular radio station Commercial Radio.
“I think we are one of the first innovators of mixing up Korean and English literally,” Lee said. “K-pop idols have been doing that bits and bits but some of our songs, we have verses of Korean and a whole section of English.”
Although in the beginning the duo wasn’t quite sure how accepting the audience would be of their constant intermixing of Korean and English lyrics, the musicians stated they were pleasantly surprised to learn of the popularity of their music both locally and outside of Korea.
“We just try to be international,” Lee added. “I really think our music speaks for itself.”
Winterplay will be performing at its upcoming solo concert “Nonstop Jazz Fever” at the LG Arts Center in Gangnam-gu on April 6. For more information on tickets and pricing, visit www.interpark.com.
By Julie Jackson (firstname.lastname@example.org)