If you’re at all familiar with Okkyung Lee’s work, you know how much she can do. The cellist and composer has made free jazz, chamber music, improvised noise, experimental electronics, and more; many of those styles showed up on her very first release, 2005’s Nimh. Yet even her biggest fans might be surprised by Yeo-Neun. In a quartet with harpist Maeve Gilchrist, pianist Jacob Sacks, and bassist Eivind Opsvik, Lee unfurls careful, intricate songs, with melodies that drip down like raindrops falling from flower petals.
But inside these gentle pieces, Lee revisits many ideas she’s pursued for years. Her knack for creating tension with space and pauses guides the contemplative “In Stardust,” while her melding of composition and improvisation marks “Another Old Story,” as it moves from a delicate piano figure to a thrilling, impulsive crescendo. Lee’s affinity for the folk music of Korea, where she grew up, is evident in track titles that borrow from Korean ballads, as well as those songs’ simple, evocative phrasings. And the wilder side of her cello playing emerges on “The Longest Morning” and “Facing Your Shadows,” as she generates all kinds of noises without crowding out her companions.
That balance might be the most intoxicating thing about Yeo-Neun. The four players’ individual sounds are woven so tightly, they seem to breathe as one. Perhaps that’s why the album has such an environmental aura, graced with song titles that refer to birds and shadows, mornings and afternoons. Yeo-Neun means “opening” in Korean, and even though its cover shows a closed window, light pours through, much the way that nature and time beam brightly in Lee’s moving, hopeful songs.