Francesca Han: Right Music, Right Time
Quietly but passionately could well describe Han's journey as a jazz musician thus far. Han made a name for herself at home but in 2004 she left her native South Korea to take a Master's Degree in Jazz Performance at Queens College, New York. Han combined studying with performing around the city and her debut recording, Francesca Han (M.M. Records, 2009)a mixture of original compositions and reworking of jazz standardsfeatured top New York musicians, bassist Corcoran Holt and drummer Jerome Jennings.
The transition from South Korea to New York was, however, not an easy one at first: "It was difficult to adapt, of course, not only for the language but culturally," says Han. Though Han describes herself as a somewhat unconventional South Korean the move to New York was still a culture shock: "It was not as easy as I thought it would be," admits Han. "I remember the first shock was the different way of caring. For example, the straightforward way of speaking, people expressing their emotions honestly, etc. With time and patience I adapted okay. Many good friends helped me out obviously."
In spite of the initial difficulties of adapting to a foreign language and culture, Han knew she had found her place: "Studying in New York was just like a dream come true," she reflects. "In Korea I was burning with curiosity and it was my passion for improvisation that led me to New York. I learned bebop and started playing at jazz clubs and was meeting so many great musicians from whom I could get lessons anytime. I learned about my art. Meeting musicians with the same affinity was great. It satisfied my thirst."
Han absorbed the music historical greats like pianists Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, and discovered in New York great modern pianists such as Kenny Kirkland, Jason Moran and Craig Taborn: "I took some lessons from Jason Moran and learned so much from him about composition and improvisation," Han relates. Another musician who had a significant influence on Han's development was trumpeter Ralph Alessi: "Studying with Ralph Alessi challenged me in many ways," acknowledges Han. "I had to deal with lots of space, meaningful space. I started thinking differently about improvising."
In New York Han played in a variety of settings, with singers, in her own trio and regularly with composer Jeff Fairbanks' Jazz Orchestra. Fairbank's Jazz Orchestra experimented with a fusion of jazz and Asian music, incorporating Korean traditional music and dancers. For Han, the fusion was quite a natural one: "Korean traditional music is a pure improvising form of art. I see the possibilities of combing jazz with traditional Korean music. I do want to explore more the possibilities of Korean traditional music," says Han. "I have a concert in July 2013 which is this kind of project. Let's see where it goes!"
Han's two recent CDs see the pianist exploring original compositions, though she hasn't yet turned her back on jazz standards: "I like writing my own music and shaping standards into my own style. I still like to play standards at club gigs but on Illusion and Ascetic I just wanted to play my own music. It's not a question of confidence or a lack of confidence; it's simply interesting to work out my own language," says Han. "Actually, 'Delusion' on Illusion is by Bud Powell, but I rearranged it so much I had to change the title. For now, I want to do my own music, but playing standards in different ways is always so much fun. Who knows? Maybe the next album will be full of standards."
For Illusion, Han once again turned to bassist Corcoran, who shares the bass duties with Drew Gress, and drummer Justin Brown. Ralph Alessi contributes strong trumpet lines to several tracks. Listening to Illusion the musicians seem to enjoy a lot of freedom within the framework of Han's compositions. Han concurs: "What I was aiming for was being myself, without doubts. I wanted to have real freedom so I invited Drew, who plays with Ralph a lot, and Justin for the delicate sounds I love to hear. They are just amazing musicians, as we all know. All I needed to do was to enjoy playing without worries. We just trusted ourselves and went for it with big energy, I believe."
It's certainly a steaming session and much of the credit goes to drummer Brown, who brings tremendous energy and inventive drive to the music: "I do love his playing," affirms Han. "He brought such delicate sensibility and dynamics into this album. I had seen him playing in [pianist] Gerald Clayton's trio. We had a duo rehearsal before the recording and it turned out great. He is such a beautiful musician. I like playing with dynamic drummers," Han continues, "I think they can draw a much bigger painting. Who does not like dynamic drummers?"