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Sangyeon Park, One of Seoul Korea’s Guitar Masters

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Jazz Guitar Today contributor Joe Barth interviews Sangyeon Park – one of the finest guitarists in Korea.

Sangyeon studied in Europe and has performed throughout Europe and Asia.  He often works with Korean singer Yunmi Kang and recently developed a friendship through playing duet concerts in Korea with the Pacific Northwest’s John Stowell.

JB:  What inspired you to take up the guitar and when did you start to play jazz guitar?

SP:  In high school, I got hooked on heavy metal music and decided to learn how to play the guitar. After entering college, I joined a school band and began learning through that experience. As I continued, I got involved in various rock bands. However, it wasn’t until I turned 25 that I fell in love with jazz and started learning jazz guitar.

Sangyeon Park

JB:  What was most helpful in your personal development as a guitarist?

SP:  I decided to study abroad in the Netherlands to pursue a deeper understanding of jazz after learning it for about two years in Korea. I enrolled at the Royal Conservatory of the Hague in the Netherlands and had the opportunity to study with excellent teachers and fellow students for six years. It was tremendously beneficial for my personal development as I could fully dedicate myself to music. After graduating, I had the opportunity to gain further insights into music through overseas tour performances. I was fortunate enough to perform in Finland, the United Kingdom, Italy, Croatia, and Thailand. These experiences exposed me to different musical cultures and allowed me to learn from diverse audiences and fellow musicians. 

JB:  To you, what are three of the most influential jazz guitar albums and why? 

SP:  The first album that had a profound impact on me is Undercurrent by Jim Hall and Bill Evans. I was completely captivated by the interplay and energy between the two musicians on this album. When I listen to “My Funny Valentine”, I am overwhelmed by the precision, rich harmonies, and intense rhythm. It feels sublime.

The second album is Intuit by Kurt Rosenwinkel. This album features only jazz standards, and Rosenwinkel’s playing is fluid and unique, built upon a perfect bebop language. It embodies the direction I have been pursuing as a jazz guitar player myself.

Lastly, there’s Beyond the Missouri Sky by Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny. I discovered this album during my study abroad in the Netherlands, thanks to my respected piano teacher, Eric Gieben. I was enchanted by the lyrical performances and profound conversations between the two musicians. It became my lullaby during those lonely nights of studying abroad.


JB:  Talk about your friendship with guitarist John Stowell and his impact on your playing.

SP:  Meeting John for the first time in Italy last Summer through the Italian jazz guitarist Lorenzo Cominoli was a remarkable experience. I had always held a deep respect for him due to his distinctive and unconventional approach to playing the guitar. In inviting him to Seoul, I organized four concerts, recording sessions, and a masterclass, all of which were truly memorable.

John is not only a true artist but also someone who remains humble and courteous. He has incredible ears and is always attentive, ready to absorb everything around him. Witnessing his dedication and preparation has been inspiring. I can only hope to embody such qualities when I grow older.


JB:  Do you know Jimmy Bruno as well?

SP:  When I started studying jazz guitar, Jimmy Bruno was one of my heroes. His flawless bebop language and incredible guitar techniques always amazed me. I still enjoy listening to his albums and it’s a great honor when he likes my performance videos on Facebook occasionally. Although I haven’t met him in person, I would be very happy if I had a chance to meet him.

JB:  Which of your CDs best represents your playing?

SP:  After releasing a solo album in 2014, I haven’t released any personal albums since then. However, I have participated in various projects as a sideman. Among them, Korean jazz vocalist Yunmi Kang’s album Your Portrait best represents my true colors. This year, I plan to record the songs I have composed so far and release a new album.

JB:  In the teaching that you have done, what are some traps that guitar players get themselves into?

SP:  In my opinion, the first trap is that the guitar appears to be an instrument that is easy to play without relying on the sense of hearing. As one becomes familiar with visualizing the fretboard, it’s easy to develop a habit of relying on sight rather than auditory perception while playing. As a result, it becomes easy to neglect listening to the playing of other musicians during ensemble performances. 

The second trap that I think of is the physical technique. Unlike other classical instruments, the guitar has made significant advancements in blues and rock music, making it relatively more accessible. As a result, many beginners start playing without properly learning about correct posture and technique. I was no exception, and I had to put in a lot of effort, later on, to alleviate unnecessary tension while playing the guitar.

JB:  What do you find rewarding in living and playing in Seoul, Korea?

It has been a little over 10 years since I returned to Korea. And for some reason, jazz has become popular here. Various jazz festivals, jazz clubs, and a large audience have emerged. There are over 20 jazz venues in Seoul and more than five international jazz festivals including the Jarasum Jazz Festival. Also, there are so many talented musicians now and the greatest reward of living in Seoul are the opportunities to be inspired by them and from time to time, to make music with them.


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