When a new musician chooses to develop in a legacy-dense historical canon that like of jazz, is it a crime to decide that they will neither fully adopt nor fully flee from that established musical genealogy? Jazz pianist, Connie Han, who makes her label debut with Crime Zone (Mack Avenue Records, 2018), has opted to come at this important musical milestone with a zig-zag approach and that’s not even factoring in her adolescent foundation as a classically trained player.
No, Crime Zone is more of a zig-zag for Han and for any incoming curiosity-laden listeners because Han makes it clear she isn’t about solely setting up shop in tradition or about flagrantly rebuffing it by committing to inventing a new sub-genre of jazz, either. The 10 track album of predominantly original and fantasy-themed compositions gives the surface impression of departure and modernization. However,much like the quick and seamless flow of many action sequences found in Crime Zone’s inspirational content of Blade Runner, Akira, and Ghost in the Shell, there is a constant, focused sway and momentum that moves the music in and out of traditional style and Han’s own compositional designs.
Hear Han’s speak about her relationship with jazz and it screams devoted traditionalist – at least where her knowledge of the canon and intimate internalization of performative signatures and subtleties are concerned. Still, there’s an important distinction that needs to be made: stylization by directive and homage by performative and emotional intent, are not the same thing when put into practice. There are certain artists, certain records, and certain songs, which Han has emphatically shared, left waves of impacts on her before exploring jazz instrumentally and even steered her inspirations for some originals on and off Crime Zone. (The Freddie Hubbard-minded “Another Kind of Right” and a newer nod to George Lucas, “Elegy for George,” respectively).
The Connie Han Trio is:
Connie Han (Piano)
Bill Wysaske (Drums)
Edwin Livingston (Bass)
(featuring Walter Smith III (Tenor Saxophone), and Brian Swartz (Trumpet).)
Where observation starts to matter when listening to Han, is not in noticing specific licks or technical hallmarks she writes but more so in picking up on a form of intangible intention that connects Han’s original writing with that of icons she’s listened to in the past. One of the most immediately sensible aspects is Han’s decisively pronounced and puncturing interaction with the piano. It’s a common callback to her pianist-raised-in-jazz-by-drummers roots but it goes beyond that factual association and her mentor-mentee relationship with trio drummer and album producer, Bill Wysaske. Just listen to the opening chords in “Southern Rebellion” and “Another Kind of Right.” Despite having motifs that reside in opposing registers, there’s an equal degree of assertiveness and alert note delivery in both pieces, unaffected by potential pitch bias often deeming higher notes as light and delicate while lower octaves are often cast as dark and brooding. Though, for everyone who isn’t Han sitting at the piano or Rhodes and physically exerting differing levels of force on the keys, the way the ensuing notes hit outside ears, and how they mentally and emotionally push or pull the mind and the pulse around (emphasis on push and pull – see the different but similarly choppy rhythms between “Member This” and Duke Pearson’s “Is That So?”) is what can break through listener consciousness the fastest and possibly what ends up lingering the longest after an intense section or entire song is over.
Imagine that a car that gets onto an interstate road. That road is the framework for a jazz piece. It’s a concrete form of direction. The road also has several lanes. Some cars get on the road but once they’ve entered a lane, they don’t deviate. Then a record like Crime Zone alludes to pre-existing directions but doesn’t just pick the settings for each song, configure the cruise control, and sit back. What Han does do through her uniquely composed but still honor-driven writing is, perhaps get on the same road as an idol of hers like Kenny Kirkland, Mulgrew Miller, or Joe Henderson before her, yet, ultimately decides to changes lanes multiple times, repeatedly shift her speed, and maybe even makes some impressive drifts just for fun – all fanciful decisions made for herself along the way but never anything nonsensical or relentlessly impulsive enough to see her go entirely off the road on which she started.
In this way, one can grasp onto an initial style, mood or – in the case of Crime Zone – multiple sci-fi and cyberpunk films. Yet, after knowing that’s the starting point, Han’s drummer-inspired playing style, and technical finesse that enables near flawless right hand flourishes on a dime, make predicting what’s coming a lost cause. The influential murmurs of some of Han’s beloved predecessors and other creative outlets echo more distinctly on Crime Zone but no song is ever decidedly channeling just the existent or just the new. In truth, it’s exactly Han’s deep knowledge of the jazz canon, and her ingrained technical aptitude which privy her to such freedom of choice with composing. How she decides to map each new musical journey is that much more exciting because what nods come through from the past, and what inventive or uncommon blends she injects in her work toward the future, aren’t constrained by a limited comfort with jazz’s traditions or her own musicianship. Much like the variation on Crime Zone, the time, place, and form of familiar sparks will vary – whether detected in a chord progression, a favored time signature, literal performance quirks, or just a feeling. All that matters is that listeners are taken on a full, rich, and confidently hybridized journey with a beginning, middle, and an end but, are never left completely adrift on the side of the road. And isn’t that what makes up the inherent soul of improvisation, which is the heart of jazz?
Keep up with Connie Han (and the Connie Han Trio) through her official website and these social media platforms: