Connie Han on Her Unconventional Path to Jazz Stardom

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Connie Han has established herself as one of contemporary jazz’s most talented and inventive musicians by combining the precision of her childhood training as a classical pianist with the improvisation, and irrepressible emotion, of her heroes Freddie Hubbard and Kenny Kirkland.

Just 27, it’s hard to believe Han released her first album eight years ago, but in that time, she’s built a dedicated following and gained the respect of genre peers through three full-lengths on Mack Avenue Records. Her latest, 2022’s “Secrets of Inanna,” draws upon ancient Sumerian myth not just for its song titles but its thematic underpinnings — a sophisticated foundation emblematic of a sophisticated performer.

Ahead of a series of master class sessions in Philadelphia and few months of touring, Han spoke to Variety about the education and experiences that helped shape her meteoric rise in the contemporary jazz world. In addition to discussing the cultural foundations (and rebellious spirit) that led her to a genre her parents would call “a cacophony,” she explains how disparate artistic and storytelling traditions find their way into work, and reflects on her role, and responsibility, as a Chinese-American and a member of the AAPI community.

I understand your parents were both musicians. What instruments did they play, or do they play?

My mother, she formally played classical piano. She doesn’t practice classically at this point, but I do believe she is very active still in the Chinese zither, or the guzheng, as it is called in Mandarin. And my father plays both the Yangqin, which is the butterfly dulcimer, and the bamboo flute, both of which are Chinese folk instruments. But prior to that, he also had training in Western film composing as well. So they were both very well-rounded in both the Chinese folk music side, as well as classical music training generally. How I came upon jazz beats the hell out of me.

Did your parents want you to follow in their footsteps? Or were they seeking a more traditional or safer path for you professionally?

Well, they never thought music was a very pragmatic idea in terms of making a living. But I think they wanted to instill in me the skillset because, well, practicing music and any skillset in the creativity sphere that practices neuroplasticity of the brain is generally helpful to just being a better and smarter human being, which is what I believe their intention was. But, I think to their dismay, not only was I interested in pursuing music professionally, but I was interested in pursuing an art form that was, by their standards, the devil’s music. I mean, I was always very precocious in that I knew I wanted to pursue my creative passion, which was music that was different, or music that inspired the existential void inside of me at least. And jazz definitely filled that void because the creative process is so intimate — you are spontaneously improvising an imprint of your own emotions or your mental state. I couldn’t express it the way that I’m expressing it right now, but I knew that when I was 14. I was a very angsty adolescent, and I think I’ve grown into that as an adult and it still stays with me, and I’m okay with that.

But, my parents are incredibly smart human beings, and I am beyond grateful to them for the formal training that they gave me, specifically in classical piano, because the precise motor function required to play is not something that I have to think about when I create or abstract and interpret. So that was a gift that I got specifically from my parents who were very adamant about being like, “You need to learn how to play really, really well — even though I want you to become a doctor or a lawyer.” So at least comparatively, the hands part of it came easier to me. But the part of it that was so challenging, and at the same time very thrilling, [was] being able to understand not only the style and the vocabulary of jazz, but also absorbing the spirits and the mythology of this music because it goes so deep, especially in terms of its rhythmic propulsion.

What were some early recordings that sparked your love for jazz?

“Chance” by Kenny Kirkland. He was someone I checked out extensively, because to me he is similar to Freddie Hubbard in that, whenever they’re on any recording, they command the attention of not only the listener but of the rhythm section specifically that they’re playing with, because of how deeply they are connected to how they interpret the pocket. It’s so funky. And I felt that especially with Kenny and his interactions with Jeff “Tain” Watts and Christian McBride. It’s been more than 10 years since I discovered that recording, and to this day, even though now I feel more masterful in that sense, I’m still really humbled every time I listen to that recording.

“Black Codes (From the Underground)” by Wynton Marsalis was an album that was kind of a cornerstone for how I wanted to play and compose. And it’s incredible because I think he was like 21, and there are moments on that, in terms of the interaction between Wynton, Tain and Kenny that are what modern hard-hitting jazz is supposed to be. I just love how, even though it’s so imperfect, it really captures the spirit of modern jazz playing that’s really angular and cool. That was the stuff I really started to check out and transcribe the crap out of. I mean, that’s my shit.

Was it following in the footsteps of those particularly influential records that led to your style?

I definitely did go down the rabbit hole of checking out every single recording by a particular player that I was interested in. But I think that’s a step that any serious jazz musician, or jazz aficionado, takes, especially in the formative years. But I commit myself to always having a comprehensive awareness of what went on, and what currently goes on, in the history of this music. Jazz is a really great way to not only fulfill the existential void, but to keep yourself busy, because there’s just so much shit out there that’s like, wow, how can I implement that in my playing? I try not to think of it as, oh, how can I sound like this guy? It’s more like, how can I absorb the spirit of what this person is doing, the focus of what this person is doing, and how can I also enter into a blank slate where you create your own terminology as a creative artist and your own voice. Because otherwise it’s not really jazz, then it starts to sound like a conservatory ensemble — a demonstration of “this is the jazz style.” All of my music, even when it’s at its most complex and it’s most cerebral, I still want it to sound very alive and cathartic, and uninhibited.

On your 2018 album, “Crime Zone,” you said you drew on the music of “Akira” and “Blade Runner.” What’s your process in incorporating those influences into your original compositions?

To me, art is about aesthetic, and not necessarily applying the influences in explicit linear ways of thinking. The best way I can explain this is, on my latest album, “Secrets of Inanna,” I think of the story of Inanna and her hero’s arc, where she descends into the underworld and ascends into the heaven as a phoenix arising from the ashes, into the destiny that she is the queen of heaven and earth. This story, to me, is synonymous of what every creative artist especially has to go through, where they sacrifice their time, their mental health, their emotional health, their social life, just everything that they have just so that they can create something that is, at least for me, something that I can feel that was worth my time.

But “Akira” was such an incredibly unique aesthetic. While they’re achieving this really badass aesthetic that I personally identify with as a musician and a person, they’re also exploring really profound themes about human evolution and about what you’re capable of becoming, which is represented in Akira, and how you also have to watch your inner moral compass, and how you abuse that power, which is represented in Tetsuo. So the fact that they’re able to grapple with both the cool-ass style on the surface, visually, and also be able to tell a really deep story, that to me is want to do with my own music.

I actually just watched a really cool fantasy movie last night called “The Dark Crystal,” and the only reason I know about “Dark Crystal” is because Bill Wysaske, who is basically my musical partner in crime. He produced “Crime Zone” and “Iron Starlet,” as well as “Secrets of Inanna.” I would literally not be the musician that I am today without his persistent mentorship and guidance, which I’m very passionate about because I see a lot of young musicians who have so much talent and so much potential, but because I think the culture is different these days in jazz education where there isn’t really this apprenticeship investment, I think, on the side of the teachers — at least with what I’ve experienced. It’s very easy to get off track of what, spiritually, it’s about. I think of it as a spiritual pyramid. And of course jazz is a social art form, but you still want it to be individual. And that to me is very, very important. And Bill has made sure that I stay strong in that sense.

It’s clear that you’re not content to adhere to anyone’s definition of yourself or the genre of jazz. Do you find yourself at all battling, if not stereotypes of jazz musicians, then of your culture or your perceived identity as your career developed?

I had an epiphany about a couple months ago that investing any emotional energy into people who just don’t get me for who I am as a person versus what they see in a picture. I used to let shit that bother me when I was younger, but eventually got to this point where I was like, I have so much shit to do, I don’t have time for you, and I don’t need to develop an ulcer over somebody I don’t even know. I think every public figure or artist who subjects themselves to the public opinion of any market, that’s what everyone has to go through. And I’ve learned to deflect it by using rational thinking, logic, eating well, exercising, and meditation, and being deeply fulfilled in something that I’m doing, which is music, rather than thinking about other people and what they think. Of course, there’s the question of how can you overcome those by communicating your message more clearly, which I think that there’s some merit to that, but I personally think I’m actually pretty good at marketing myself. Of course, I could be better, but I’d rather be better at music.

What is your relationship with live performance? How comfortable are you with that? What creative energy do you get from that experience?

I really miss playing live on regular basis, because the experience in which you are literally performing for people who are right in front of you, who are taking part in this emotional journey collectively with you, is a feeling that I can’t really put into words. I remember there was a concert in which two people came up to me and they told me that they were in tears after we played “Windrow’s Goddess” from “Secrets of Inanna.” And playing that tune specifically, there are certain chords that just get your heartstrings no matter what. It’s like this physiological response. And the fact that it translates to the audience makes me feel both terrified and also profoundly fulfilled. Because the last thing I want to be is a sterile, cerebral, cold, calculated, intellectual jazz musician, which I have fallen into in the past because I’m so specific and technical about stuff. So I always feel grateful when the audience responds with extreme passion or being moved, because jazz is both selfish for me, but it’s also about communication.

There’s a well-established tradition of Japanese jazz artists, but there does not seem to be, at least in the Western world, as strong a tradition of Chinese jazz artists. Are there artists who you feel deserve a degree of visibility that they haven’t received?

I wish there were more, but I think the Chinese people in general don’t like jazz. The reason I think there are more Japanese jazz musicians who are doing really well these days is because they love America, and they love Western culture, and they infuse that stuff into their own [art], stuff like anime and manga. But the Chinese part of me is the stubborn, don’t be influenced by other people kind of thing. My parents are the perfect example. When they hear jazz, it’s just a cacophony to them. I think there is a certain obsession with perfection, which I’m not saying negatively — actually totally neutrally and almost positively — because I think these aspects of myself that I think are very common in Chinese culture, such as constantly striving for excellence, that’s why it doesn’t surprise me that they constantly pump out classical pianists left and right, and why Lang Lang is the biggest star in the Chinese market, is because these qualities are so prized. I prize these qualities too, and I have to navigate these and implement these in ways that are healthy in my own art, despite the fact that it’s completely paradoxical to what jazz is, which is imperfection. So the answer to your question is, unfortunately not. That doesn’t mean that my Chinese heritage hasn’t played a huge part in making me who I am, because it definitely has. But I love it. I really do.

So you see the position that you’re occupying currently more as an opportunity than a responsibility — is that fair to say?

I would say that I still have the responsibility as an artist to contribute something that is meaningful to not only music, but art, and hopefully beyond art, the spiritual meaning that is hopefully being communicated through that art. I’m actually very adamant about transcending culture as well. I think that’s really important, because otherwise I think it can isolate otherwise receptive individuals who may really need that. I think I have a mission and a responsibility to fulfill that at the same time as my own individual compulsion and addiction to adrenaline and just challenging myself, and expressing myself. To me, they both exist in the same plane.

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