Francesca Han: Illusion (2012)
Pianist Francesca Han's music contains a certain duality. She's a classical and improvising jazz pianist with one foot in the jazz tradition and the other wedged firmly in the door of contemporary jazz. An established jazz musician in South Korea, Han acquired new vocabulary studying and playing in New York, where she also collaborated with composer Jeff Fairbank's experiment in fusing Korean traditional music with jazz. Though jazz clearly dominates Han's playing, a ghostly classical vein is felt, as is Han's spirit of adventure, resulting in vibrant, arresting music that's always evolving.
Hans debut, Francesca Han (Mm Records Group, 2009), was a trio outing mixing standards and originals, whereas Illusion presents all-originals. Trumpeter Ralph Alessi brings beefy solos to a number of compositions. The headswhen presentare clearly signposted, but the rest is a thrilling ride, with drummer Justin Brown and alternating bassists Drew Gress and Corcoran Holt enjoying tremendous freedom within clearly defined parameters.
There's a palpable sense of the musicians feeding off each others' energy and intuitive moves, whether in tentative passages, the trio feeling its way into "Study 34" during the intro, or in the rhythmically charged exchanges that dominate the session. Alessi not only brings added fire to numbers like "Study 34" and "Count Yourself," but interacts sympathetically with Han in their little dovetailing gestures, in the duo's tightly spun hard bop unison lines and in the bolder give-and-take of extended soloing. Whether as a trio or quartet, the musicians make a strong unified statement.
Han's playing draws from a deep well of ideas. Her dynamic runs, with "Contemporary" and "Hypatia" providing highlights, are punctuated by little tangential flurries and accents here and there, kernels of ideas that, over the long course, color her improvisations like knots in polished hardwoodstriking but essential parts of the overall contours. A deft two-handed player, Han's left-hand dishes out bold chords sparingly, maximizing their impact. She exudes energy, and even the numerous islands of pause that mark her solosnotably on "Delusion"act as highly sprung launching pads for further exploration.
The impressionistic vignette "Subtle Bitterness" bristles with the slightly oppressive atmosphere of storm brewing; an effect heightened by Brown's rumbling drums. It gives way to the melodic "Shaolinish," a Brad Mehldau-esque number which grows from a simple to-and-fro between Han and Holt into an expansive dialogue of dependence and independence, with Brown anchoring the trio. "Castalia" is a haunting interpretation of an elegiac Frederic Chopin Etude. Han's quietly stated blues lyricism is buoyed by Gress' beautifully weighted bass lines. In Greek mythology, the nymph-turned fountain Castalia inspired poetry in those who listened, and Chopin's quiet waters have achieved just that in Han's heartfelt yet personal interpretation.
The trio improvisation "Gravity" closes an absorbing set in angular mode, yet even when playing free jazz the trio sounds perfectly attuned. After only two recordings, Han already sounds like the finished article. Illusion is the work of a mature, intuitive and daring musician, and one undoubtedly deserving of greater recognition.
Track Listing: Study 34; Delusion; Count Yourself; Subtle Bitterness; Shaolinish; Contemporary; Castalia; Hypatia; Study 34-2; Gravity (improvisation).
Personnel: Francesca Han: piano; Ralph Alessi: trumpet; Drew Gress: bass (1, 3, 6-7, 9); Corcoran Holt: bass (2, 4-5, 8, 10); Justin Brown: drums.
Record Label: NatSat Music