Interview with Connie Han: Jazz at its best has a little grit and darkness: Video

Jazz Interview with jazz pianist Connie Han. An interview by email in writing. 

JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Connie Han: – Born in Los Angeles to Chinese professional musicians, music has been part of my life since birth. My mother, a classical piano instructor, provided me the technical facility and instrumental command I needed to tackle jazz as a complete art form. I was brought up around traditional Chinese folk and classical music, so when I listened to jazz for the first time, I was enamored by the culture and its unique creative process. Since I was very young, there’d always been something brewing inside of me that needed a creative outlet: spontaneous improvisation. Jazz was calling to me.

JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the piano? What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose the piano?

CH: – At 14-years-old, I was accepted into the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts as a double major in classical piano and voice. After proving my willingness to work hard to the jazz department faculty, I transitioned quickly into a full-time jazz piano major. My apprenticeship to LACHSA instructor Bill Wysaske was crucial to my “jazz IQ” development, as he was the guiding force in my transition from a beginner jazz student into a full-fledged jazz artist and professional musician. Working with him in my formative years helped me understand “the social equation” of playing with others and, most importantly, the absolute necessity of playing with great time and feel. As I did not have a formal “jazz piano” instructor, my rhythm-driven playing style (inspired by players like Kenny Kirkland) is heavily informed by my experience studying with a drummer. Asides from studying that side of the music, we also tackled learning diverse repertoire, interpretation of playing style, and composition/arranging through deconstructing concepts, pure problem-solving, and relentless practice.

JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

CH: – Practice, listen, and transcribe — those are the three words I live by to this day in my work ethic. A key part of my evolution was my desire to sound and swing like my heroes: Mulgrew Miller, Kenny Kirkland, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Hank Jones, Wynton Kelly. I constantly transcribed their solos and tried to incorporate their vocabulary into my own. It was important I balanced transcription with raw creative practicing as well, so I wasn’t constantly regurgitating “licks”, but I was also applying the larger abstract concept in my own voice. I consider myself an eternal student of this music, so I still live by these practices.

JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

CH: – I always isolate any issues I have whether they are technical, rhythm/vocabulary-related by composing and practicing etudes around each issue. I apply the etudes into my improvisation and repeat the process until it becomes easier. I constantly check myself for weaknesses, deficiencies, or anything that even remotely challenges the mind or hands so that I am ready for the next time I’m on the bandstand for any musical situation. In rhythm, I take a single phrase and permutate them starting on different parts of the beat in 4/4. Once that is comfortable. I do it in 3/4. Once that is easy, I do 5/4, and so on. However, this process can also become a little robotic, and nothing compares to the feeling of playing along with legendary recordings, so I also balance that into my practicing.

JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now? You’re playing is very sensitive, deft, it’s smooth, and I’d say you drift more toward harmony than dissonance. There is some dissonance there, but you use it judiciously. Is that a conscious decision or again, is it just an output of what goes in?

CH: – Jazz at its best has a little grit and darkness. It is unique in that even at its most consonant, jazz harmony still asks a question to the listener. In my playing, it is important that dissonant and consonant elements are balanced so that the music is served in the present context.

JBN.S: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?

CH: – Be strong in your conviction and vision, and all else will fall into place.

JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

CH: – That answer is found in one remarkable man: Elvin Jones!

JBN.S: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?

CH: – I serve the music and strive to honor the rich lineage of my craft. I have no issue reconciling that fact with the question since this great music is universal to both the artist and audience.

JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

CH: – Through playing this music in the years I have left to live, I hope to find out.

JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

CH: – The Young Lions era in the late 80s/early 90s so I could see my heroes Kenny Kirkland, Mulgrew Miller play live.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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