Francesca Han: Right Music, Right Time
Han's approach to composition and improvisation could be described as impressionistic: "I usually wait until the music comes up and then I imagine sounds and color; then I start creating the whole painting. When I improvise I try to remember the original sounds I imagined. Mostly each tune has very particular color so it's not easy to change all the time. For sure, bebop colors my playing but I'm focused on creating my own language so I can see in and out at the same time."
It's difficult to discern too many obvious influences in Han's playing, with the exception of the track "Shaolinish," which has echoes of pianist Brad Mehldau's lyricism. Han acknowledges her debt to Mehldau: "I started jazz seriously because of Brad Mehldau's music and all the stories it tells. It's obvious that his music affected me for a long time," says Han.
After eight years in New York, Han decided the time was right to return to South Korea. "I was lucky to learn all I did there," she says of New York. "I absorbed everything around me and got closer to the core of what it means to be an artist. Perhaps the most significant thing I learnt was to accept differences."
The jazz scene in South Korea that Han returned to was quite different to that of a decade ago: "When I left in 2004 there were around 10 jazz clubs in Seoul, but now there are maybe 20 clubs. There was one college with a jazz program, now there are many colleges running jazz programs. There weren't so many jazz musicians a decade ago so I was lucky to play club gigs a lot. But now many people who have studied jazz in the USA or Europe have returned to Korea. So, I see jazz is becoming popular and the jazz scene is getting bigger."
Han, however, bemoans an imbalance, as she sees it, in the type of jazz groups popping up: "There's little diversity in the music; there are many pianists but not enough horn players and this might hold back a growing market," she says. An abundance of pianists and piano trios doesn't appear to have held back the growth of the audience for jazzat least for the time beingif theJarasum International Jazz Festival, an hour-and-a-half outside Seoul, is anything to go by. The 2012 edition was attended by 200,000 young Koreans, and it's an audience that's both passionate and knowledgeable.
Han was invited to perform at JIJF 2010, and was impressed by the scale of the event and the organization behind it that ensures its smooth running: "I didn't realize how big this festival had become because it started the year I moved to New York. I was very happy to be performing at home. It was great to know the Jarasum family, especially director J.J. In. The people at Jarasum work so hard and with these kind of people I'm sure jazz will grow a lot more in Korea," says Han.
Han's second CD release of 2012 was the solo piano offering, Ascetic, a technically brilliant and emotionally beguiling work. "I've practiced solo piano for a while but this recording just happened without a map," explains Han. "I am not sure if the music has been with me or not. It just came out of nowhere. So yes, it was a big leap to the next step of exploring my music."
Though predominantly recorded in Seoul, the seeds for Ascetic were planted while Han was still in New York: "While recording Illusion, just for fun I played [John Coltrane's] "Countdown" solo and found some interesting ideas. Then I decided to play three more solo tunes for Illusion. When I came home in early 2012 I recorded three tunes at a studio and the producer asked me if I could just improvise something. So, I kept on playing whatever I wanted for two hours and it turned out to be around ten tunes."
Eight of those tunes born of extended improvisations made it onto Ascetic. The other two tracks Han describes as "bonus tracks," and feature Malaysian violinist Fung Chern Hwei.
Hwei is a member of the Sirius String Quartet in New York and Han first came across him whilst both were studying at Queens College: "He's a good friend of mine and we joke all the time" says Han. "He plays all kinds of music with so many great musicians like [pianist] Uri Caine, [singers] Tony Bennett and Bobby McFerrin, [composer] Ryuichi Sakamoto and [saxophonist] Ivo Perelman, among others. We recorded his first CD From the Heart (Self Produced, 2010) and last summer we recorded again." Hwei's playing on the self-penned "Ceili" provides an album highlight. Han, unsurprisingly, is a fan: "I love his music. He writes beautiful music," she enthuses. "He's a very talented young musician. He's flexible and dynamic and I have great respect for his vast musical language." The other track that Hwei plays on is the album closer "Spontaneous Essay on Nothing," which, as the name suggests, was a purely improvised piece.