SCENE: A dimly lit jazz club and mildly tacky but iconic neon sign are the backdrop, barely lighting a small stage littered with various instruments, stands, speakers, and affiliated gear. Shrouded in darkness, a small audience waits with baited breath as a lone young man clad in a crisp white shirt and simple black pants lightly takes a seat on a stool, center stage. Accompanied by a simple three-piece jazz combo, what follows is a soulful, nuanced jazz ballad, aptly named “Moonlight.”
This is a scene like what I’ve experienced playing saxophone or swing dancing in jazz bars in the US. The only difference? This scene is what plays out in a jazz bar in Seoul in M.O.N.T.’s Burgundy Tape, with music perfectly befitting this setting. “Moonlight” the first track released, is a solo song featuring Bitsaeon singing a standard jazz ballad in English without the usual glitz, glamour, or fancy camera work often associated with high budget K-pop music videos. The second track, Shadow takes on the same energy and jazz influence, but features the whole trio in a sultry, erotic love song complete with scatting and killer instrumental backing.
I am not sure I can actually describe how much I adore “Moonlight.” While evoking jazz styling certainly is not new to K-pop, it often seems like an unfortunately underrepresented subgenre. Often songs that do draw from jazz are one-offs for groups or are infused in the regular stylings of the music of numerous indie artists. (See any track from Modern Times by IU, “Re-Bye” by Akmu, “Something” by TVXQ, “Piano Man” by Mamamoo, or one of my personal faves “Attention” by Esna, (or eSNa).)
Jazz as an art form is a tremendously wide genre in the common usage of the word. However, most artists typically use select aspects or timbres of jazz rather than its more authentic roots or modern reincarnations, except for on semi-rare occasions. In contrast, “Moonlight” is framed in a simple 12 bar blues with minimalist drum kit tracking. Because of this adherence to a standard form, the music is allowed to be the star in this MV in all its nuanced simplicity. While not complex in its construction, allowing the song to “breathe” in a sense lets Bitsaeon’s ornamentations and delicate falsetto take center stage. Creating beauty out of very simple frameworks can be incredibly challenging, but Bitsaeon seems to do it with ease. Also, in a typical jam session, you would likely find this kind of simplistic three-piece setup to accompany impromptu vocal solos already. It would have been very possible for Bitsaeon to have literally walked into the Boogie Woogie (the name of the jazz club in which the video takes place) and performed this song with the instrumentalists needing likely nothing other than a key signature. Improvisation is a key part of pretty much all styles and substyles of jazz as an art form, and most instrumentalists are prepared for these kinds of spontaneous ventures.
I feel like special props need to be given to Bitsaeon’s vocals and his incredible control across his range. Every small nuance, even the way that he ends notes and phrases, is peppered with incredible vocal prowess and musical know-how that comes from both extensive vocal training and an ear for jazz vocal styling. I also find it interesting that Bitseaon wrote the song all in English. He is credited as the composer of the track, and as such, these creative choices hold significant weight. The lyrics are melancholy but thoughtful, and the sentiment of only telling your true thoughts to the moonlight is one that I think many can relate to.
Another fun addition is the setting of the MV. There is no prevalent theme, underlying story, or subversive message. Rather, the MV literally takes place in a prominent jazz club in Seoul. It is casually shot in monochrome, further feeding the vintage imagery of the song, and making the neon signage and Bitsaeon’s white clothes pop in the frame. While they could theoretically be hired extras, there are also people milling about, even walking in front of Bitsaeon, seemingly in conversation as he sings. This low-key, atmospheric setting makes it feel fresh and real like Bitsaeon is not another idol on a stage, but a jazz musician in his element. Between the depth and authenticity of the music itself, the on-location MV, and Bitsaeon’s breathtaking vocals, this is easily one of my favorite music releases this year.
The other song on Burgundy Tape, “Shadow” also takes place in the Boogie Woogie, but is a drunken, sensual love story to an unknown lover. This song is more overtly sexual, showing the members stumbling around, drinks in hand, as they attempt to woo the listener saying they feel drunk and “even like your shadow.” The music in this one has a wider instrumentation than “Moonlight” but prominently features typical jazz instruments (with some synthesized strings and added vocal chops to fill out the overall texture.) I like the choice in the addition of a piano to more clearly outline harmonies and offset the members’ fuller vocal color. This as well as some R&B inspired guitar licks gives it more of a funky, playful feel in contrast to the previous track.
Two fun elements that deserve mention are Bitsaeon’s killer scatting in the latter half that makes for a unique bridge as well as Narachan’s crooner-esque “laridari feel like I’m drunk yeah.” They both give the song more variety and character, keeping the listener entranced from the opening piano licks through the last chorus. Additionally, while the lyrics here are relatively blunt, the way that Roda and the other members slightly slur their “even like your shadow” almost sounds like it could also be “livin’ in your shadow,” almost like the members are living in the shadow of their own desire and lust. As the members become more drunk, demonstrative, and emotive throughout the video, this is hardly an exaggeration.
Again, this mixtape is probably one of my favorite releases this year, and not just because I have a soft spot for some good jazz. The music, imagery, and vocal prowess again showcase the members’ ability to take on any musical style and give it their own flair. In Burgundy Tape the songs “Moonlight” and “Shadow” showcase two sides of the same coin: contemplative hesitation in the moonlight and outright sensual desire from the shadows. Forever the kings of contrast and dimension, I’ll be looking forward to what sonic colors they experiment with next.