A brilliant jazz pianist and an influential educator, Hey Rim Jeon looks forward to releasing her fifth CD as a leader, Groovitude. An accessible and melodic set filled with inventive versions of familiar standards, a few originals, the memorable Korean folk song “Spring In Home Town,” and the Korean pop song “100 Years Of Promise,” Groovitude is just the latest accomplishment in Hey Rim’s busy career.
Hey Rim Jeon was born in Seoul, Korea and began playing music very early in life. “My mom always exposed me to music and I took my first piano lessons when I was three. I grew up playing classical music and I performed for the first time in public when I was nine, but I was able to play by ear from a young age. I enjoyed playing along to whatever I heard on the radio or television.” She won many awards for her interpretations of classical music, but her musical direction permanently changed when she was 17 and heard the Oscar Peterson Trio’s We Get Requests CD. “Because I had a classical background, when I listened to him and was told that he improvised, that certainly caught my attention. I was mesmerized by his playing and the idea that one could make up music rather than just playing what was written down.” While jazz was not that popular in Korea, Hey Rim Jeon soon knew that performing creative music and improvising was what she wanted in her career. A Berklee graduate who came to South Korea and gave her some lessons encouraged her to go to the United States and study jazz at Berklee.
The 18-year old pianist enrolled at the Berklee College of Music and among her most significant teachers were such greats as Joanne Brackeen, Laszlo Gardony, and Ray Santisi. “Berklee provides so much information that it takes a lifelong commitment to really digest everything. It was an eye opener to the bigger music world and gave me an opportunity to play with so many talented musicians.” While at Berklee, she won the prestigious “Piano Chair” award for jazz performance from the piano department. After graduating in 2001, Hey Rim earned a Master’s degree in Contemporary Improvisation from the New England’s Conservatory of Music, studying with Ran Blake, George Garzone, and Michael Cain. “While at NEC I was exposed to many other types of music including the avant-garde and World Music from other countries. I was also encouraged to write my own compositions.”
An educator since 1999 when she was still attending school, Hey Rim Jeon is currently an Associate Professor in Berklee’s piano department and has been a Professor of Jazz at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. “With passion and love for Keith Jarrett’s music, at Berklee I have created a new course, Solo Piano Improvisations of Keith Jarrett, which has been offered at the Piano Department since Spring 2017.” She received the "Berklee Exemplary Mentorship Faculty Award" this past year and in 2017 she co-wrote the book Berklee Jazz Standards for Solo Piano with three other piano department faculty members; it was published by Hal Leonard. “I love to watch students grow and realize their goals. I enjoy the one-to-one connection with individuals, mentoring youngsters, and helping them realize what they really want to achieve in music. In addition to focusing on technique skills and helping students become very comfortable with their instruments, I always ask what their goals are and work to give them the skills that allow them to accomplish their dreams.”
Hey Rim Jeon has been very active as a jazz pianist during the past 20 years. While based in the New England and New York areas, she has performed in Japan, Turkey, Canada, and on many occasions in Korea including at the Jarasum International Jazz Festival. “My most memorable gig was performing there in 2009, leading a group that also included Dave Liebman, Terri Lyne Carrington, and John Lockwood. Coming back home, I felt very happy that I had succeeded at my goal of becoming a jazz pianist; it felt wonderful.” Among the many venues in which she has performed in the United States have been Jazz At Lincoln Center, Birdland, the Iridium, Ryles Jazz Club, the Beantown Jazz Festival, the Smithsonian Museum, and with Benny Golson at Wellesley College. Other notables with whom she has performed include bassists James Genus and Lonnie Plaxico, drummers Ralph Peterson Jr, Yoron Israel and Nasheet Waits, trombonist Robin Eubanks, and saxophonists George Garzone and Ronnie Laws.
The pianist made her first recording in 2003, Hey Rim & Friends (Take Note Music), an early effort recorded at Berklee with her trio. It reached CD Baby’s 40 top selling jazz albums list. She recorded her solo piano set Alone while in Japan in 2007. That year she also toured Japan and collaborated with the popular Vietnamese singer Doan Trang on Trang’s Negative Proof (Am Ban), a recording that received the Golden Album award for Best Album that year in Vietnam. 2009’s Mona Lisa Puzzle included many of her compositions on a program that featured Herbie Hancock’s rhythm section (bassist James Genus, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, and percussionist Richie Barshay) plus the masterful saxophonist Dave Liebman. Introducing Hey Rim Jeon (2012) was recorded for the N-Coded Music label and resulted in her gaining a lot of publicity and recognition. Hey Rim also appeared on Rats Live On No Evil Star with the JCA Orchestra from 2018. “That recording was made for the Jazz Composers Alliance. It was an honor to be on the label because they feature some of the best improvisers in New England.”
Next up for Hey Rim Jeon is the release of her trio CD Groovitude which also features bassist John Lockwood and Terry Lyne Carrington. “My father, who passed away several years ago, was battling cancer. When I saw him during that period, he would always say that he would love to hear me play some relaxing music which would really help him in his fight. It inspired me to record an album for the general public, one that focuses more on arrangements than my compositions and includes a lot of jazz standards that people know quite well.” Among the highlights are such numbers as a grooving version of “Nature Boy,” a surprisingly bluesy “What A Wonderful World,” “Fly Me To The Moon,” and “Summertime,” each of which are given fresh treatments. Hey Rim also contributes a few originals and plays “Spring In Home Town,” a famous Korean folk song that expresses yearning about wanting to return to one’s home. She closes the memorable set with a sensitive rendition of the Korean pop song, “100 Years Of Promise.” She remembers her father singing that song every day to her mother. “It was his way of saying that he loved her. I played the melody in the bass range as a tribute to his singing.”
Hey Rim Jeon spent the 2020-21 period teaching virtually at Berklee, writing music, practicing piano, and helping Berklee produce a virtual concert each week for the students. She looks forward to the future with enthusiasm. “I had played at the Spectrum in New York in Jan. 2020 right before the pandemic and I hope to go back there again as soon as things open up again. In addition to continuing to grow as an educator, rather than settle down as a musician, I want to move forward and constantly challenge myself. I really look forward to performing again!”
- Written by Scott Yanow (Jazz Historian & Journalist)