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Francesca Han: Ascetic

Ian Patterson By

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Coming just a few months after the striking Illusion (Audioguy, 2012)—a vibrant trio recording featuring guest trumpeter Ralph Alessi—pianist Francesca Han's first recorded foray into the world of solo piano reveals a musician in a rich vein of form indeed. Stemming from the Illusion sessions, eight of the ten tracks are the fruit of an impromptu two-hour improvisation, and it's perhaps not surprising that there's a pronounced flow and unrelenting energy about these performances. There's great variation in mood throughout, though the unifying thread—at whatever tempo and intensity—is Han's dynamic, ever inventive two-handed dialog.

Han draws from an extensive vocabulary that encompasses bebop, classical music, contemporary piano and folkish airs. Though her colors are bold, Han mixes them artfully to create a language that's rooted in more than one tradition yet is essentially modern at the same time. The suitably titled "Ambidextrous" presents an arresting dialog between hands; the initial flowing runs dissolve into more succinct, jagged motifs—like a conversation turning from harmonious discourse to one of slightly acrimonious, sharper tongues. In sharp contrast, Han caresses the keys on the delicate title track, a bewitching pan-Mediterranean lament evocative of Italian pianist Francesco Turrisi.

Even when most inspired by the jazz tradition, as on "Dismantled"—a scintillating, free-flowing improvisation built upon the chord changes of saxophonist John Coltrane's "Countdown"—the Cole Porter-inspired "Why is this thing called Love?" and the pianist Bill Evans-inspired "Green in Blue," Han's language is very much her own—the latter evokes Radiohead's "Paranoid Android." Without heads, there are no overt melodic references to the original sources of inspiration; instead, Han seems to adopt the moods and emotive weight of the originals, shaping and coloring them with her own distinct vocabulary, dazzling runs and strong rhythmic contours.

Han exhibits great refinement and a lightness of touch on "Winter's Bush" and "Promenade." Rhythm is suppressed in favor of a gently melancholic impressionism, though narrative flow and subtle tensions—coiled and gently released—are common to both. If wintery stillness characterizes the skeletal frame of "Winter's Bush," then the slightly warmer melodic vein of companion piece "Promenade" feels like the onset of thaw.

The slow-burning, quietly majestic "Lament for the Fallen" combines an unwavering, somewhat somber bass pulse and a strong melodic heart. Han's Jarrett-esque soloing is simply breathtaking—dramatic and emotionally charged. Two tracks recorded at the end of Han's eight-year stay in New York feature violinist Fung Chern Hwei of the New York-based Sirius String Quartet. Hwei's achingly beautiful ballad "Cheili" and the twitchy, angular improvisation "Spontaneous Essay on Nothing" provide contrasting yet equally compelling evidence of Han's versatility.

Ascetic is an ambitious and brave solo statement from a pianist and composer of prodigious talent. Never predictable, Han sustains a constantly unfolding narrative full of character and incident. Like an extraordinary saga, Ascetic seduces in the smallest details and the most dramatic episodes alike. It's a stunning solo debut and surely announces Han as one of the most compelling of contemporary jazz pianists.

Track Listing: Ambidextrous; Ascetic; Dismantled; Winter Bush; Promenade; Why is this Thing called Love?; Green in Blue; Lament for the Fallen; Ceili; Spontaneous Essay on Nothing.

Personnel: Francesca Han: piano (1-10); Fung Chern Hwei: violin (9-10).

Title: Ascetic | Year Released: 2013 | Record Label: Audioguy

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