Connie Han, a jazz pianist, arranger, composer and bandleader from Los Angeles, began her music career at the age of 17. She quickly gained notoriety for her edgy, improvisational performances.
After independently releasing her 2015 debut album, “The Richard Rodgers Songbook,” Han was signed to Mack Avenue Records. In October 2018, at the age of 22, she released “Crime Zone,” a blazing collection of mostly original compositions.
We spoke with her via email about the need to break creative boundaries, the relationship between jazz and science fiction, and, of course, coffee.
Historically, jazz has had a strong association with cafe culture. It seems you play in a range of venues, from jazz cafes to the big festivals (this September, you’ll be featured at the historic Monterey Jazz Festival). Do you enjoy the intimacy of playing or listening to music in jazz cafes?
I love performing at both kinds of venues; jazz clubs allow for a unique intimacy between the artist and audience. Every audience member can engage in an enhanced visual as well as sonic experience. It’s also more difficult to “wander off” during an artist’s set to another stage as you can with ease at a big festival.
With that said, festivals provide an unparalleled playing experience. It’s a true joy to be able to play the music I love for hundreds if not thousands of people (who usually really listen!). Festivals also provide the awesome opportunity to check out and hang with other great artists also playing.
Frankly, the deal breaker for playing either kind of venue is the quality of onstage sound and backline. As long as the musicians can hear each other and the environment is conducive to making music, I’m all in!
You’re on a Spotify-curated playlist called “Coffee Table Jazz.” The Bean Magazine has a department called #nowspinning in which we interview cafe owners and baristas about the vinyl they’re spinning at their shops. Some even sell vinyl, and this seems to be a growing trend. How do you consume music these days, and in what ways do you discover new music?
Though nothing can parallel a true analog listening experience, I’ve chosen to adopt streaming as my main means of consuming music. It meets my needs as a professional musician because it allows me to learn and study a lot of repertoire in a way that is both cost-effective and convenient.
There seems to be a sci-fi, Blade Runner-inspired aesthetic to your music: noirish, with a hard edge. There seems to be a strain of jazz that finds inspiration from science fiction, and certainly we can see this in both John and Alice Coltrane and most obviously in Ornette Coleman. At what points do science fiction and musical expression converge?
Science fiction and jazz share the common vision of looking toward the future. Where science fiction always questions the current state of affairs and prophesizes society’s evolution, jazz constantly seeks to make or break the rules in what constitutes truly creative improvisation. Pursuing both agendas satiate the human need for learning and exploration. After all, to “explore strange new worlds” and “go where no man has gone before” is the original “Star Trek” motto. Though both genres may share their respective tropes and traditions, science fiction and jazz cannot stay stagnant; it’s simply not in their nature.
The subgenre of cyberpunk science fiction shares even more similarities to jazz in its emphasis on a gritty, film noir visual aesthetic. Jazz is strongly associated with that mystique, especially in jazz photography with brooding silhouettes and cigarette smoke.
Arguably the most important theme in cyberpunk science fiction is its dystopian vision of humans losing touch with their humanity due to the ever-increasing involvement of technology in their daily lives, especially with the growing domination of artificial intelligence. When humans reach a point of technological advancement where they can create AI in their image, not only are they dealing with the question of what it means to be human, but they are also confronted with the question of what it means to be a god.
Jazz, whether consciously or not, has always been about exploring one’s humanity as well as getting closer to “God.” Where science fiction deals with these existential questions on a literal and intellectual basis, jazz deals with these questions on an abstract and subconscious basis at the peak of creative thinking.
The opening song on your latest album, “Crime Zone,” is called “Another Kind of Right” — a tribute to the jazz giant trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. You’ve also mentioned in interviews that your music director and drummer, Bill Wysaske, is one of your biggest musical influences. Instrumentalists other than pianists have played a crucial role in defining your approach. What is it about listening to and learning from musicians who aren’t pianists that appeals to you?
Thanks to Bill taking me under his wing in my formative years, I learned the crucial lesson that great time and interpretation of time feel is more important than even instrumental technique or what notes you play. Something I will always be thankful for was having a professional drummer to work with during my early lessons, so I was constantly being challenged by a musician with more rhythmic versatility and experience.
The most important skill in achieving truly great jazz improvisation is mastering the social equation of playing with other musicians. What better way to understand jazz accompaniment than to study and transcribe musicians who don’t play your instrument? Spending too much time at your own instrument can limit your thinking or approach to improvisation. Each instrument is built differently and is set up with unique primary “responsibilities” to the band, so studying and playing other instruments is beneficial to becoming a well-rounded musician.
What inspired the title “Crime Zone”?
The title track was originally named “Time Zone” because of its implied polyrhythm, and calling it “Crime Zone” was actually an ongoing joke. In the end, Bill (who produced the record) and I decided “Crime Zone” would be a much cooler and more provocative name. Not to mention, it is more in line with who I am!
You have called jazz “part progressive and part folk art.” How does your music reflect this, and does jazz suffer when it loses the balance between the two?
Though jazz is defined by its need to break creative boundaries, I am a very serious student of the tradition. Without an understanding and respect of the language and source material, i.e. “folk art,” it is impossible to continue the legacy and create something original, i.e. “progressive art.” As Gustav Mahler put it so well, “Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.”
We have to ask! Do you have a favorite coffee shop or tea house? What’s your favorite caffeinated beverage?
I really like Cafe Dulce in Little Tokyo in downtown L.A.! My favorite drink is nothing fancy — just a classic hot black coffee.
To learn more, visit ConnieHan.com.