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Okkyung Lee, who plays Sunday night at the Pritzker Pavilion in Min Xiao-Fen’s Asian Trio, is one of the most beguiling young figures in New York’s creative-music community. The Korean cellist—she came to the U.S. in 1993, at age 18—moves effortlessly between different worlds without changing her sound in any significant way. She plays in pianist Vijay Iyer’s multimedia project Still Life With Commentator as well as Laurie Anderson’s art-pop ensemble, but on her own she’s concerned mostly with improvisation.
The recordings I’ve heard by her with turntablist Christian Marclay and in the collective quartet IOOi with percussionist Billy Martin, electronicist Ikue Mori, and DJ Olive reveal her innate flexibility, as she tacks fluidly between the extended techniques of free improvisation, full-on noise, and contemporary classical vocabulary. Her superb album Nimh (Tzadik, 2005), a collection of composed works, applies a similarly boundary-hopping aesthetic to richly melodic pieces with inventive arrangements that take such joy in texture they practically vibrate.
More recent is the solo album I Saw the Ghost of an Unknown Soul and It Said . . . (Ecstatic Peace), where her sound is laid bare. The first side of the LP-only release, dubbed “One, Two, Three, Four . . . ,” features four shortish improvisations that explore specific gambits—high-pitched bowed scrapes, choked stop-start sound bursts, delicate bird-like chirps—delivered in dynamic arcs with exhilarating tactility. The flip side assimilates all of these approaches into a single, highly athletic workout. Lee looks well beyond the constraints of the cello, using it as a multifarious sound device, and springs sonic surprises on us at every turn.
Ruben Blades, De Panama a New York (Fania)
St. Vincent, Actor (4AD)
A Velha Guarda da Portela, Portela Passado de Glória (Biscoito Fino)
Christina Kubisch, Licht Himmel (Gasometer Oberhausen)
24-Carat Black, Gone: The Promises of Yesterday (Numero Group)