23-year-old pianist Connie Han establishes herself as a force to be reckoned with in the modern Jazz landscape with her reverent, yet thoroughly striking, sophomore album ‘Iron Starlet.’
There are musicians who play an instrument, and there are those who communicate through an instrument. For 23-year-old pianist Connie Han, her instrument is truly an extension of her being. “The piano makes an extraordinary amount of sense to me,” Han told Atwood, “it is, and will continue to be, my life’s work.”
Atwood Magazine is proud to premiere Connie Han’s sophomore album Iron Starlet (which will be out on June 12th via Mack Avenue Music Group). The album’s ten tracks beautifully illustrate Han’s dedication to her life-long musical journey⏤ one that will always be driven by her most innate intention to unravel and interpret the unlimited possibilities of the piano. An evolution from her debut album Crime Zone, Iron Starlet “is a wide-ranged meditation on [her] core philosophy to continue a legacy of, and to create, tough, primal, raw but still intellectually engaging jazz.”
Iron Starlet is a collection of compositions with beauty and bite. Han shared with Atwood that the key to achieving such a unique sound can be found in the writing and recording process: “Even with such exhaustive preparation, we still improvised music we’d never played before both individually and collectively.” Improvisation requires trust and a “fluency in the jazz language.” Han and each of her collaborators “evolve that language through his or her own voice,” igniting each track with their palpable chemistry and dynamic energy. The heartbeat of Iron Starlet lies in the rhythmic push of Han, bassist Ivan Taylor, and drummer/producer Bill Wysaske. The album also features saxophonist Walter Smith III and trumpeter Jeremy Pelt.
It is more than possible to still be original and forward-thinking without deconstructing the building blocks of jazz language.
Hans shared with Atwood that she’s looking forward to “writing and arranging music informed by [her] current and ever-evolving musical perspective.” And if Iron Starlet is any indication of where Han’s heading, it’s to the stratosphere and beyond. Pre-order Iron Starlet, and read on to learn more about Connie Han and the process of bringing her sophomore album to life.
Listen: ‘Iron Starlet’ – Connie Han
A CONVERSATION WITH CONNIE HAN
Atwood Magazine: When did you begin playing the piano? Why is it your instrument of choice?
Connie Han: At five-years-old, I instantly connected with the instrument both physically and spiritually even at that age and I consider it to be the most direct conduit for self-expression— often more than the English language. To put it succinctly, the piano makes an extraordinary amount of sense to me. It is and will continue to be my life’s work.
Can you talk about the process of creating Iron Scarlet in terms of composition, recording and production?
Connie Han: Iron Starlet is a wide-ranged meditation on my core philosophy: to continue a legacy of and create tough, primal, raw but still intellectually engaging jazz. Bill Wysaske evidently shares this philosophy with me as his contribution as a producer, co-visionary, arranger, and composer is indispensable to the album’s execution. He composed and arranged five of the tracks and I composed the other half. We went through an exhaustive process in interpreting the music’s aesthetic and musical arcs for well over a year before recording.
What was uniquely beautiful about recording Iron Starlet was that even with such exhaustive preparation, we still improvised music we’d never played before both individually and collectively. It was a blessing to have gone to the studio straight off of a five-night tour because the trio’s chemistry was palpable that day— we were really able to elevate as a group. On bass, Ivan Taylor was absolutely key to that palpable chemistry the trio achieved that day. He possesses the most important qualities of a bassist: a full yet crystal-clear sound and an always-conscious awareness of where to put the pocket and groove as hard as possible.
Who is featured on the album?
Connie Han: Ivan Taylor, Walter Smith III, Jeremy Pelt— The exceptional musicianship of these gentlemen brought our music to life.
Who are your greatest influences and why?
Connie Han: McCoy Tyner — Though known for his pioneering take-no-prisoners approach at the piano, McCoy is supremely musical above all and equally versed in elegant lyricism as he is in hard-driving and innovative rhythm. He was one of the last few living legends from the post-bop jazz mythos that has shaped my character and soul. He pushed the instrument forward as a percussive and interactive instrument, especially in tandem with the drums. Pianists such as Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Phineas Newborn, Jr. are notoriously known for sheer technical virtuosity, but I believe McCoy was the first to have that level of virtuosity and still inspire syncopated and thematic interaction with the rhythm section, particularly with Elvin Jones during the Coltrane years. Their chemistry elevated jazz at large in its scale and spirituality.
Kenny Kirkland informs my primary concept of rhythm and feel. He is an extension of the McCoy Tyner school in his approach to the piano as a percussive instrument. His style is uniquely influenced by Afro-Cuban/Latin rhythms, which informs his incisive attack on the piano and signature style of “ghosting” off-beats. His rhythmic feel is buoyant, funky, and holds its own in creating layered subdivisions similar to a drummer/percussionist.
Hank Jones — the epitome of elegance and lyricism. He informs my approach to clarity, melodicism, and sophistication as a style. In tandem with Art Tatum, I study his solo piano work and actively integrate many of his concepts into my own solo piano skill set.
How does your environment influence your sound?
Connie Han: Playing with humans can inspire me to improvise in ways I had never considered previously. Similarly, introverting my musical perspective during quarantine has inspired me to flesh out and build even more thoroughly a solo piano skill set. I feel lucky to play the piano because the expressive and technical range of the instrument is unlimited in both a group and solo setting. Particularly with solo piano, that wide range comes with more freedom… and with more freedom comes more responsibility. Though these times are hard and I desperately miss playing with my band, I am grateful for the time I have now to live up to that responsibility.
What does the genre of contemporary jazz music look like from your perspective?
Connie Han: It is a jazz musician’s primary purpose to create music that is of the moment. Whether that be in the vein of the tradition or modern explorations of the genre, the spirit of jazz is to be present in the moment. A core value of mine is to be as fluent in the language of this art form as possible— Fluency in the jazz language gives a musician the freedom to evolve that language through his or her own voice. It is more than possible to still be original and forward-thinking without deconstructing the building blocks of jazz language.
What excites you most about the future of your career? Any directions, or new territories, you are looking forward to exploring?
Connie Han: I look forward to becoming more well-versed in all aspects of my musicianship and fluent in the jazz language, both as a trio and solo pianist. In addition to that, writing and arranging music informed by my current and ever-evolving musical perspective.
Do you have any tips for artists or musicians, or really anyone, attempting to stay inspired during trying times like these?
Connie Han: This is the best time right now to slow down, appreciate what you have, and refresh your perspective on where your goals and priorities truly lie. There is nothing in this world more valuable than time, so make the most of it by cultivating your well-being and productivity on the things that matter the most to you!
“Iron Starlet” – Connie Han
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📸 © Michael R. Pool
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