Connie Han: The Jazz Warrior-Goddess

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“I think jazz needs more provocative personality, and it needs more sex,” Han says.

(Photo: Robert Lyden)

Of all of the interesting things Connie Han said during a recent interview, this was perhaps the most unexpected: “I will finally say publicly,” she asserted, “that I am so fucking sick of people comparing me to Keith Emerson.”

The fact that anyone had indeed drawn such a parallel between the 26-year-old jazz pianist and the keyboardist-bandleader of one of the greatest prog-rock bands of all time seemed noteworthy, if not flattering on the merits. But one thing became evident during a two-hour conversation over video from her hotel room in New York: Han hates being compared to others in general.

She had just flown in from a jazz festival in Vancouver to do a video shoot at the famed factory of her main endorser, Steinway & Sons. Sporting a shoulder-length rocker hairstyle that looked eerily similar to the cuts worn by all three of Emerson, Lake & Palmer during their heyday, Han exudes an aura less compatible with jazz and more with any other popular music genre, be it rock, funk, punk or hip-hop: a defiant, brash, f*#k-you attitude and image that has nothing to do with fitting into any societal norms of modesty and decorum. Quite contrarily, she intends to push audiences out of their comfort zones into areas that are more, shall we say, dangerous.

Perhaps no place would be more perilous than in the presence of an impetuous, lustful, power-hungry warrior-goddess. There exists such a creature in ancient Sumerian mythology, in the form of Inanna, goddess of love, sensuality, fertility — and war. Han explained in great detail how and why she came to identify with this deity, to the point of titling her fourth and latest album Secrets Of Inanna (Mack Avenue) a thematic collection of pieces tied to the titular character. In this case, Han is openly inviting the comparison with her own persona.

“I find [Inanna] fascinating,” Han said, “because she was not only a woman that represented all the virtues of what is glorious about being a woman and femininity and beauty, but she was also viciously ambitious. … She had unbridled ambition for power, and she had very commonly associated masculine qualities about her — she was very brash, very courageous.” Such qualities are certainly evident in Han’s public life — she is not shy about promoting her feminine assets online, via provocative photos and videos, yet in those same videos, she can be seen aggressively attacking the piano with a skill and ferocity unmatched by all but the most accomplished of pianists, in an unapologetic display of virtuosic showmanship. Think about the muscular musicality of Art Tatum in the body of an Instagram model.

Han has channeled Tatum directly in these videos, flawlessly performing a transcription of his vaunted rendition of “Tea For Two,” and also indirectly in tribute to Tatum and fellow piano legend Hank Jones in her arrangement of Neal Hefti’s “Girl Talk.” Those brilliant runs glide effortlessly off her fingers, yet she has worked very hard to make it look so easy. “I’ve spent many hours checking out those Tatum transcriptions. Some people are like, ‘He plays too much,’ and I’m like, that’s because he wants to play too much, and it sounds great, and I always loved that. Art Tatum is a huge influence just in his, sort of, flair.”

Han works almost as hard producing those videos. She estimates it takes a solid five full days to produce a three-minute video, from conceiving and working up the seemingly impossible piano arrangements, to doing her own wardrobe, hair and makeup, to recording and filming the performance, all on her own without any assistance. “As I’ve already explained to you, I’m a perfectionist in my music. I’m similarly a perfectionist with my look because I consider my image to be an extension of my personality. I know that’s not common, especially in jazz music and classical music, because they’re both considered higher-order forms or whatever. I’m pretty wild with it, but that’s because I like to express myself.”

Expressing herself in the way that she does — with an overt emphasis on herself as a young, sexy female — has certainly had the desired effect, awarding greater exposure to her music on a larger scale. Yet, the elephant in the room is that such a strategy runs counter to a rising chorus of women jazz artists who have spoken out against the persistent misogyny they continue to endure by the overwhelmingly large number of male artists and audiences in this particular music. Drummer Sherrie Maricle, who founded the all-women DIVA Jazz Orchestra almost 30 years ago, told this writer in a 2020 Q&A for DownBeat, “No single woman artist that I’ve ever known in my life would have [looks] as a priority above learning the music and being reverent about everything surrounding it.” Even more recently, vocalist Jen Shyu said in another interview for DownBeat, “What I’ve been exploring my whole life as an artist is trying to come up in a music world — and more specifically a jazz world — that has objectified me and exoticized me as an Asian female.”

Han, whose images could be seen as perpetuating the exotic Asian female trope Shyu described as having been applied to her, has, obviously, a different philosophy. “Jazz used to be more provocative and more dangerous,” she mused. “And as things have become more formalized and institutionalized, it’s become very sterile and safe. I think jazz needs more provocative personality.” She added bluntly, “And it needs more sex.” She cited Miles Davis and Roy Hargrove as two examples of jazz artists who understood the connection between sexiness and swagger.

“I just think it’s more about a statement of not playing it so safe anymore,” she said, regarding her choice to highlight her looks, “and as long as you can play and stake your right to be there because of your abilities, you should have the full right to express yourself with as much edge and flamboyance and eccentricity as the greats used to do.”

More on that last point in a bit. But to Maricle’s thoughts, Han’s detailed knowledge of the history of jazz piano, along with her own playing, helps makes the case that her music is still the main priority, no matter how she chooses to look. She cites pianists Tatum, Hank Jones, Erroll Garner, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Mulgrew Miller and Kenny Kirkland as her prime influences. She gushes about these artists in detail and depth; about her favorite recordings of theirs, their sense of time, their articulation on the piano, their ability to sound modern while drawing on tradition. On Jones, she remarked, “He was able to imbue that modern attitude while still being able to play [stride] because he was a heavy Fats Waller guy, and he still had that beautiful left hand.” On Garner: “I consider him like an anachronistic player — he’s really extraordinary with his interpretation of like the triplet. He’s playing in his style that is so Harlem stride — it’s not the boom-chick, boom-chick, but he’s playing that quarter note — and it’s so interesting.” Han spent perhaps 10 minutes or more talking about Kenny Kirkland’s combination of clarity and presence, comparing and contrasting those things with what Chick Corea did on Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (Blue Note).

It was not lost on Han that all of her musical heroes are no longer alive. “I’m not a modernist,” she replied, “but as a modern piano player just by the virtue of the fact that I’m alive today, I consider myself more like a traditionalist, and I say that in the context of the fact that you can’t play modern unless you have a deep understanding of the roots.” Asked if there were any current musicians she might draw inspiration from, she demurred, saying, “To be honest, I’ve always been interested in blazing my own path, and what’s going on today as a whole doesn’t really influence my playing.”

Born in Los Angeles to Chinese parents who were at one point both career musicians, Han started piano lessons at age 5, with her mother being her first teacher. She acknowledges her early classical training and the work ethic passed down from her parents through some cultural and/or genetic traits as crucial to her ability to play the way she does.

Han discovered jazz in high school, when she heard “Chance” by Kenny Kirkland from his self-titled album. “When they found out that I wanted to play jazz,” Han said of her classical-minded parents, “they took it really personally. But when I decided on it, it was not to go out of my way to rebel or anything against them. I was genuinely raptured by the spirit of this music from a very young age, and I pursued it, regardless.” Her parents are much more supportive now, in light of her recent success. Having an endorsement from Steinway doesn’t hurt, for sure.

“Everyone wants to make their parents proud, and god knows that story is even more severe in Asian households,” she said. “But, yeah, I think it’s important to instill in young people to have a strong sense of self and to have good mentorship and self-esteem that doesn’t rely on the approval of others.”

Han’s belief in herself ultimately led her away from going to college to study jazz. “I think the fact that when you’re a developing young person, surrounded by other peers who are checking out a certain music that’s really trendy, that can lead to a certain type of peer pressure to also listen to those same things because you wanna fit in with your friends, you wanna make the hang, and I think that can often lead to a lot of clones,” she said. She also was discouraged by what she saw as a coddling of the students, which only served to perpetuate the fragility of their egos.

“There is a certain level of walking on egg shells with students because of the protocol of civility at higher education,” she said. “Whereas I feel like in the real culture of jazz — at least the way it used to be — it was very crass if you fucked up, and I think having that culture, though it may potentially be toxic, bred in an environment of motivation to really take it more seriously because there were stakes for your reputation, there were stakes for paying your rent.

“I think that culture shifted. Now you go to school for jazz, and we’re going through these institutions that are funded by philanthropists, and it’s a very comfortable environment where it’s easy to access information and everyone is listening to the same thing.” For Han, jazz had gotten too safe in the schools, so she had to escape that safety to find growth through challenge.

“This actually goes back to mythology,” she continued. “Because mythology talks about how suffering and experiencing hardship will awaken the deepest parts about yourself, and I think that hardship just isn’t there these days, especially in a jazz institution.” Han’s mythical heroine, Inanna, had to descend into the underworld and, according to Han, was actually killed down there before coming back to life to ascend to the heavens in her own resurrection story.

“She wants to face her inner darkness,” Han said of Inanna. “Because in order to be good, you’ll have to acknowledge the darker moments to draw from. In order to create quality art,” she continued, completing the thread of her logic, “[artists] draw from suffering, they draw from a place of darkness in order to create something and to be inspired. I know that I’ve created some of my best art through my darkest times. You come out as a more enlightened being with the perspective that allows you to take on life as a more exceptional version of yourself.”

Drummer Bill Wysaske, a former high-school teacher of Han’s, said, “There never seems to be anything that she’s not going to accomplish. She was attuned to star quality. I’m willing to say every jazz musician is an artist for sure, but I’m not sure every jazz musician has that thing to be the star.”

Wysaske, who recently relocated from Los Angeles to Boston to pursue music full-time, ended up producing and playing on all four of Han’s albums, arranging and even composing many of the pieces. It was he who first introduced Han to the legend of Inanna, suggesting the goddess to her as a kindred spirit who could be a central theme for their next project together.

“He is a true visionary,” Han said of Wysaske. “He was able to sort of see how mythology parallels real life, and that it’s a metaphor and poetry for the human condition. I think what was really unique about his contribution to the project was that he imbued it with this melodic life that made the world that we were trying to create more immersive.”

Wysaske did this by orchestrating some of the music for French horn, alto flute and piccolo, and by enlisting saxophonist Rich Perry to act as kind of a melodic and empathetic foil for Han’s percussive, aggressive instincts. Both Han and Wysaske point to “Vesica Piscis,” a stunning rubato piece composed by Han and performed as duet with Perry, as the highlight of the album, showcasing the full musical and pianistic range of Han’s abilities.

The tracks that feature Perry also reveal another side to Han, that of an accompanist, something she does with great skill, yet something she is not known for, as she launched directly into her solo career without the usual first step of being hired for someone else’s band. “Most of my heroes played as sidemen for legendary bands,” she acknowledged, “so it’s something that I’m interested in.” She is open to playing that role “if the right person called.”

There is, after all, plenty of time for that to happen, as Han continues to nurture her young and flashy career in different ways. “In order to really have something to say on the instrument, you have to have experienced life to have a story to tell,” she said. “And when you’re young, you don’t necessarily have these experiences. I mean, I’m young, but I have certain experiences I can imbue into my music. … Who doesn’t want to have a reason for why you play?”

It might take another descent or two back into the darkness and the danger, but Han will always be up for the challenge — and look good every step of the way. DB




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January 2023
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