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Francesca Han: Right Music, Right Time

Ian Patterson By

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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."

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