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Pianist and composer Yoonmi Choi traces the roots of 7 Days (Next Level), her majestic, genre-bending new trio album, back more than seven years, to an Italian vacation that included a visit to the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. Before her arrival at the famous church, she had no plans to pen and perform a musical variation on the Biblical story of the Earth’s creation. But the moment she looked up at the ceiling and saw the portion of Michelangelo’s fresco devoted to this theme, inspiration struck as if she’d been touched by the finger of God.“It was amazing,” she recalls. “And at that moment — right at that moment — I thought, ‘I have to do this.’”Choi, who was born in the city of Incheon and grew up in South Korea, has combined faith and music for much of her life. “I’m Christian, and my mom is very religious,” she says. “We went to church every single Sunday, and when I was older, I played piano in the church.”Choi began studying the piano when she was just 3 years old, beginning an educational journey that would take her to Sookmyung Women’s University and the Dong-ah Institute of Media and Arts College prior to her attendance at the Prince Claus Conservatoire in the Netherlands. And while her initial focus was on classical music, jazz entered the picture in dramatic fashion during a subway ride when she was 24.
“I didn’t know anything about jazz at all, but then I heard ‘All the Things You Are,’” she says. The Jimmy Heath Quintet’s rendition of the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II chestnut features Wynton Kelly on piano, and his playing floored her. In her words, “I listened to the music and cried. It was just so beautiful. I was a classical musician, and what I could do was read the music and then play the music. But jazz musicians could play with chords and progressions, and I thought, ‘Wow.’ It made me want to find out how they did what they did.”In 2015, Choi moved to New York and subsequently earned a Master of Music in Jazz Performance from Queens College. But rather than rejecting classical music, she found ways of incorporating it into her writing and playing while still allowing herself the freedom for more spontaneous exploration. “Every song has some improvisation,” she stresses.The composing process for Choi’s Michelangelo-inspired recording found her following the master’s lead. “It took him a long time on those paintings — more than three years,” she notes. “So I thought, ‘I don’t want to make the music in one or two months. Maybe I have to do more thinking. I have to give it more time.’ That’s why it took me five years to make 7 Days.”The approach paid off. The first track, “1st Day,” subtitled “Let There Be Light,” features a series of grand flourishes worthy of a magnum opus, with Choi thundering across the keyboard as drummer Samvel Sarkisyan and bassist Myles Sloniker add colorful accents. But cuts such as the tricky, quick-fingered “5th Day (Let Them Swim, Let Them Fly)” swing with abandon prior to “7th Day (It Was Good),” a Choi solo excursion that’s the equivalent of a blissful sigh after a job well done. In Choi’s view, fealty to the Christian version of divinity isn’t a requirement for enjoying 7 Days — or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. “Everybody loves Michelangelo’s paintings whether they believe in God nor not,” she says. “These are not only religion things. These are art things.”