Mina Cho was born in Seoul, South Korea on August 20, 1981—and, seemingly, born to the piano. Her youth offered her the promise of a life as an esteemed concert pianist. While still a student, however, Cho found herself struck by the power of gospel, in both the religious and musical sense.
Majoring in theology at the prestigious Yonsei University in Seoul, Cho continued to nourish her love of gospel music as well. She earned a scholarship to Boston’s Berklee College of Music to study the music formally, a pursuit that led her to discover jazz. She earned her degrees in film scoring and jazz composition, ultimately earning both master’s and doctorate degrees in the latter.
Gospel never ceased to be a passion of Cho’s, however; she worked as an accompanist at several churches in the Boston area. Nor did she leave behind the gugak tradition when she left Korea: At Somerville Community Baptist Church, where she currently serves as music director (and her husband is the pastor), Cho leads a gospel jazz band whose instrumentation includes a Korean ajaeng (bowed zither). Naturally she began to explore all of those possibilities, and how to bring them together, in her own music.
Cho’s 2010 debut album, Originality, was a deep dive into the substantial common ground between the gospel and jazz traditions. She recorded a follow-up, Love Transformation, in 2016, and has also worked extensively with Darrell Katz’s Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra. In 2021 and 2023 she released GreeKorea: Greeting the Moon and Samulnori Fantasy: Seasons, which introduced her nine-piece Gugak Jazz Society as a vehicle for merging its two titular traditions. It is that band’s offspring that produced the Grace Beat Quartet and Beat Mirage, which, Cho says, “fulfills my long-standing ambition to create a platform where traditional Korean and jazz musicians can organically exchange ideas for composition and improvisation.”
Mina Cho will be performing a Lunar New Year Celebration Concert at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, on Thursday 2/15; and a Black History Month Celebration with a Community Gospel Choir Concert, Somerville MA (Somerville Community Baptist Church), on Saturday 2/17. Mina Cho’s Grace Beat Quartet will present selections from Beat Mirage in New York (St. Paul’s Chapel of Trinity Church, 209 Broadway) on Sunday 8/4. The Grace Beat Quartet and Gugak Jazz Society will participate in the K-Festival (Boston) in September and the 10th Corée d’ici festival (Montpellier, France) in October. Updates on the upcoming performances for the CD release concerts and Canada-Korea Co-Creation Project will be announced on the website.
Photography: Christo Tsiaras (quartet), Daniel Schwartz (Mina)