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."

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."
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