Toronto bassist-composer Robert Lee set an incredibly difficult challenge for himself with Cha-Ran
. His goal was to adapt a series of Korean folk tales with the depth and wisdom he associates with Studio Ghibli films such as Spirited Away
— a seemingly impossible task he somehow manages to achieve more often than not.
The title track, named for the tale of a governor’s son who falls in love with a dancing maiden from the royal court, doesn’t so much start as fade in, movie-style. Lee provides delicate accompaniment for ethereal vocalist Carolina Alabau with the assistance of drummer Tetyana Haraschuk, a longtime associate, and guests such as Kris Ramakrishna on flamenco guitar, Brandon Atwell contributing vibraphone and marimba, pianist Adem Mehmedovic and violinist Mai Choma, whose presence ratchets up the drama immeasurably. This combination of elements is rich with tradition yet not in thrall to it, and in this context, Lee’s decision to include a jazz-friendly stand-up bass solo feels both appropriate and inspired.
Lee’s bass plays an even larger role on “The King and the Mountain” and “Peaks and Spires of the Summer Clouds.” On the latter, Alabau delivers Lee lyrics such as, “Will any say that the hills do not move?/On the sunset breezes they sailed away” with timeless passion, as guitarist Marco Pisani and pianist Marc-Olivier Poingt, among others, serve as aural cinematographers, conjuring imagery with every note.
"Jade,” about two stars that fall in love with each other, brings vocalist Mateo Falgas into the fold, and his star turn is gloriously romantic. The meditative “Seun-Sul” and the lovely “Sun Petals” follow, setting the stage for the finale, “Kaelo,” in which singer Nina Nicolaiewsky and Lee perform a moving duet on what’s described as a composition “for those who pursue happiness.” Mission accomplished. — Michael Roberts