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Francesca Han: Right Music, Right Time


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Korea has never been more fashionable, leading the way in technological advances and dictating hair styles, television viewing, eye shape and pop music trends across Asia and beyond. The mindboggling response to singer PSY's song "Gangnam Style," with over a billion hits on You Tube, epitomizes the phenomena of the so-called "Korean Wave." Fewer people, inevitably, are aware of the depth of Korean jazz talent, amply demonstrated on the essential compilation Into the Light—Korean Music III—Traditional Music and Korean Jazz (KAMS, 2010). And whilst Korean jazz may not make US President Obama, UK Prime Minister Cameron or UN Chief Ban Ki-Moon strut their funky stuff as they've all reputedly done to Gangnam Style, it's enjoying vibrant growth as perhaps never before.

One of the most impressive jazz talents to have emerged from Korea in recent years is pianist/composer Francesca Han, whose technical command of her instrument is matched by a bold improvisational style that draws from jazz's traditional roots and more contemporary influences. At times, Han's improvisations veer towards modern-classical but it's a rhythmically vibrant jazz aesthetic that dominates her playing. The Great American Songbook, saxophonist John Coltrane and pianists Bud Powell and Brad Mehldau inspire her in equal measure, but her voice is fundamentally her own.

2012 was a big year for Han; she returned to her native South Korea after eight years in New York and released two CDs. The first of these, Illusion (Audioguy, 2012) is a trio/quartet recording bristling with energy and intuitive interplay. The second, Ascetic (Audioguy, 2012) is Han's first solo piano recording, whose emotional range and technical finesse further underlines the pianist's wealth of ideas.

Han gained a BA in classical piano performance, though as she relates it wasn't exactly a labor of love: "Honestly speaking, I was not really into classical music at all during my college years," Han admits. "Perhaps I didn't like to play exactly what's written." As a teenager, Han listened to American and British pop and rock and her natural inclination towards freer forms of music led her to join a rock band as a keyboard player whilst at college: "I was just working out what type of music I liked to play."

Han was in the rock band for three years, playing mostly Deep Purple and Rainbow numbers. It was Deep Purple keyboard player Jon Lord who turned Han onto improvised music: "I heard Jon Lord's improvisations in concert. I'd mimic the jazz sounds. It made me curious about improvisation and jazz." The first jazz CD Han listened to was pianist Bill Evans's You Must Believe in Spring (Warner Bros, 1980), a gift from a friend. It was a pivotal moment in shaping Han's musical direction: "That Bill Evans album has quite crucial meaning for me," Han affirms. "Its lyricism and emotional content totally blew me away. It touched a deep sensibility within me. The right music came to me at the right time and changed my whole life."

Though perhaps destined to become a jazz pianist, Han didn't turn her back entirely on classical music: "Fortunately, thanks to my college professor I developed an interest in Bartók and Ravel and I enjoyed playing their music," says Han. "Even after I got into jazz I played with many opera singers and string players."

Though Han rarely gives classical piano recitals these days, she is quick to acknowledge that her classical training has provided a good technical foundation for jazz: "Ultimately, to make beautiful music some technical skills are required," she states. At the same time jazz has helped Han gain a better appreciation of classical music: "Jazz has definitely led me to a better understanding of classical music, particularly with regards to harmony," she says.

Han talks of the "humanity" in classical music—and the idiom certainly influences her playing—but that jazz is her main idiom Han is in no doubt: ""Jazz satiated my thirst and liberated my soul to some degree," Han explains. "I believe that jazz is a tool that draws out the inner urge to make real communication with myself as a musician." This classical-jazz duality can be heard on Han's very personal interpretation of Chopin's Etude in E-flat minor Op. 10 No.6 on her solo album, Ascetic, though as Han explains, it is something of a musical departure for her: "It was not my usual taste. I am not interested in playing classical pieces in jazz mode, but in this piece there were simple rhythms and harmonies, which intrigued me so I decided to play it quietly but passionately."

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 standards—featured 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 Project Hansori' 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?"

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 jazz—at least for the time being—if 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.

Han's eight composition/improvisations have a distinctly contemporary feel, though stemming from jazz roots: "Green in Blue" has some relation with [pianist Bill Evans'] "Blue in Green," explains Han. "Also, "Why is This Thing Called Love" was based on "What is This Thing Called Love." But I didn't play heads on any of these tunes so I can change the titles. It was just improvised music."

Though Han has given classical piano recitals in the past the approach to Ascetic was something new: "This recording was the first time I'd played solo piano for two hours. It was very challenging and yet not impossible." It has been a highly rewarding experience for the pianist: "I have some very special memories of making this album," admits the pianist. "I am not satisfied with my more composed works, but there were some moments that I can't even remember what was consciously done. I think those moments were totally beautiful."

The experience of improvising and recording Ascetic has seemingly given Han even greater confidence to express herself: "After I recorded Ascetic I decided to play more solo piano concerts."

Both Illusion and Ascetic are out on Audioguy. The quality of the recordings is excellent, as is the attention to detail in the packaging of the CDs, so it's little wonder that Han is full of praise for the independent label: "They are very good people. It's not a big label but it has a good reputation for recording and mixing," says Han. "The cover designs look like a bit like ECM but Audioguy uses strong, unique color for its work. They believed in me on these projects and I really appreciate their work and concern."

After eight years acclimatizing to New York, it's little wonder that a certain amount of readjustment was needed on returning to Korea: "Adapting myself once more to Korean culture has been quite stressful," Han admits, "but it's getting better now." With plans to explore and adapt Korean traditional music Han will connect on a deeper level with her roots in a way she hadn't before and the prospect excites her.

There are a number of solo concerts coming up but beyond that Han is content just to go with the flow: "Maybe my plan is not having a plan," she says. "Music always comes to me without planning. I'd say just being myself at any time would be my plan."

Selected Discography

Francesca Han, Ascetic (Audiouguy, 2012)

Francesca Han, Illusion (Audioguy, 2012)

Jeff Fairbank's Project Hansori, Mulberry Street (Brooklyn Jazz Underground Records, 2011)

Fung Chern Hwei, From the Heart (Kepong Boy Music, 2010)

Francesca Han, Francesca Han (MM Records, 2009)

Photo Credit

Page 1: Courtesy of Francesca Han

Page 3: Michael Lee

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