Connie Han - Iron Starlet
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Connie Han Iron Starlet

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It’s rather rare for serious jazz musicians to market themselves the way pianist/composer Connie Han does on her second album, Iron Starlet. If one were to view the press photos, let alone those in the CD, one might think they promote a dominatrix. No matter: most of you are listening digitally these days anyway. Han’s music is attention-getting regardless. She drew raves with her 2018 debut Crime Zone, and now the 23-year-old pianist/ composer returns with a fierce set of tunes that pays respect to her forbearers like the late McCoy Tyner and Hank Jones to the Young Lion period artists spearheaded by the Marsalis brothers, Kenny Kirkland and Jeff “Tain” Watts, among others. Han expresses it this way, “The intention of this music is to continue a legacy of tough, primal, raw but still intellectually engaging straight-ahead jazz. I am an aspiring star in this music, but I am not a naïve, uncertain girl that people wrongly associate with that term.” So, that’s the gist of the album title, an iron-clad star who easily repels sniping, stereotypical quips. She’s not fooling around.

The toughness she references is rooted in the rhythm section, anchored by Han, bassist Ivan Taylor and drummer/producer Bill Wysaske, who also composed three selections. Han wrote five and two are covers. Veteran saxophonist Walter Smith III returns from the debut and is joined on the front line by trumpeter Jeremy Pelt to provide a mix of grit and sophistication – that fine line that Han insists on treading, fueled by the piano-drum partnership with Wysaske that has been in place for years and keeps evolving.

The title track opens as Wysacke’s percussive barrage paves the way for Pelt’s Freddie Hubbard-like trumpet entrance, segueing to Han’s relentless solo, propelled by a dialogue with the drummer. “Nova,” a live set staple, has Han on the Rhodes for an intricate, constantly shifting tune. As an aside, some of these titles like “Mr. Dominator,” “Boy Toy,” and “Dark Chambers” do seem to play into those alluring cover photos but we’ll let that ride and return to the music. The former is a nod to the Jones brothers, Hank and Thad. The swinging “Boy Toy” is a Wysaske composition and ‘Dark Chambers” is an aggressive tune recalling the groove of Kirkland’s “Chambers of Tain” from Wynton Marsalis’ Black Codes (From the Underground), a seminal album for this band and its music.

Han’s percussive piano style on “For the O.G.” is a direct nod to the late McCoy Tyner. “I don’t think anyone else did as much for the modern jazz piano as McCoy Tyner did,” Han says. “He really pushed the instrument forward as a percussive and interactive instrument, especially in tandem with the drums. Plenty of other piano players in the history were known for playing a lot of piano, but when McCoy Tyner plays, he’s able to be aggressive and full while also inspiring the rhythm section and provoking the drummer to react. I did my best to showcase my admiration in this tune.”

They take Joe Chambers’ “Hello to the Wind,” with Han again on Rhodes, to exploratory heights, injecting snippets of show tunes and themes from the Simpsons composer Alf Clausen. The standard “Detour Ahead” reveals her more delicate expressive side. “Captain’s Tune” carries a gentle sway as does the jazz waltz “The Forsaken,” showcasing Han’s nimbleness on the keys, supported by Taylor’s cushioning bass and Wysacke’s brush finesse.

“This band can go from the blues to the esoteric,” she says. “But we always strive to bring out the darkness, grit and depth in this music as much as possible. Those are the elements that we’re inspired by and the values that we hold quite dear.” Make no mistake. Han and band have the requisite chops and then some. This is straight-ahead jazz, inspired by tradition.

—Jim Hynes

Read Article: Elmore Magazine