June 11th, 2018 / Troy Dostert
Taiwanese pianist Francis Hon didn't plan on becoming a jazz musician. But, during his doctoral studies in piano performance at the University of Texas, he met Jeff Hellmer, Director of Jazz Studies at the university, and that connection initiated Hon's pathway into the world of jazz—one he further explored during an eventual move to New York to intensively study jazz at NYU. On Before Dawn, his debut trio album, Hon shows that his thorough immersion in jazz has been time well spent.
Joined by veteran drummer Billy Drummond and fellow up-and-comer, bassist Jeong Hwan Park, Hon offers four of his own compositions and three others, Bobby Hutcherson's "Little B's Poem," Alec Wilder and Morty Palitz's "While We're Young," and Michael Jackson's "Stranger in Moscow." With a confident, graceful tone and a smart harmonic sensibility, Hon reveals his ample debt to Bill Evans, the warm romanticism of "While We're Young" making that parallel unmistakable. So, too, does Hon's predilection for waltzes, as three of the pieces utilize a 3/4 time-signature to excellent effect. It helps that Hon's partners Drummond and Park provide rhythmically supple support, with tasteful interjections that don't get in the way of Hon's ideas. Park's nimble basswork is especially worthy of mention, as he generates a good deal of the momentum on "Little B's Poem," where his adroit lines are the perfect complement to Hon's runs. Hon and Park have played together previously in another of Hon's projects, the World Jazz Quintet, and their synchronicity is abundantly evident in their rapport throughout the record.
Although most of the music on Before Dawn fits comfortably in the modern straight-ahead piano-trio vein, Hon does reveal a bit of his interest in other idioms, whether on "Morning Star," an impressionistic solo piece with a classical temperament, or his take on pop music with "Stranger in Moscow," reminiscent of the kind of reworkings pianists like Vijay Iyer and Brad Mehldau have tackled. But while these endeavors may bear more fruit for Hon in the future, for now he seems to find his sweet-spot right in the middle of the jazz spectrum, as his work on the album's title track makes clear. Built around a lovely tune, with Drummond and Park providing that insistent waltz tempo with which Hon thrives, it furnishes the perfect opportunity for Hon to delve deeply into the jazz tradition. And, with his harmonic concept at its most sophisticated, it's the record's best evidence that Hon has a promising career ahead of him in this music.
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May 30th, 2018 / Dave Sumner
I do really try to stay away from the approach of comparing one artist to another… especially a modern artist with one from the classic jazz age. But this lovely set from pianist Francis Hon had me thinking wistfully about how long it had been since I’d given a Duke Pearson recording a spin. Hon has a way of gently coaxing a melody to resonate with impressive strength. Much of the album echoes the hard bop era, but there’s some modern influence that makes its presence felt, too. Hell of a nice debut. Hon is joined by bassist Jeong Hwan Park and drummer Billy Drummond. Music from Brooklyn, NY.
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Had Brad Mehldau not already taken the title The Art of the Trio, Francis Hon might have considered using it in place of the comparatively less proclamatory Before Dawn. On the fifty-minute release, the Taiwan-born pianist raises the piano trio tradition to a level of high art with elegant, classically infused playing superbly complemented by the contributions of acoustic bassist Jeong Hwan Park and drummer Billy Drummond. It's hard not to hear Bill Evans in Hon's playing (especially when he expresses a particular affinity for a prototypical Evans waltz such as “Alice in Wonderland”), but while he's obviously been influenced by him and others Hon's personalized approach shows him to be more than a mere follower or clone.
The groundwork for this recording began long ago. Hon, who undertook classical study at the age of six, moved to the US in 2011 to pursue a doctorate in piano performance at the University of Texas in Austin; during that time, his love for jazz blossomed, and an intense study of Nikolai Kapustin's solo piano music, notable for merging classical and jazz idioms, evolved into something of a blueprint for Hon's own approach. The degree completed, a subsequent move to New York City to attend the jazz studies master program at New York University found Hon studying and playing with John Scofield, Don Friedman, Alan Broadbent, and Drummond, among others. As steeped in the jazz tradition as Hon is, he's not averse to letting other influences seep into his music, whether it be a song by Michael Jackson, ballad by Diana Krall, or soundtrack by Dario Marianelli.
As mentioned, Hon's an elegant player, and one noticeably sensitive to harmony and melody. There's little evidence of dissonance in his playing, and while there's exuberance aplenty it never lacks for control. There's a mellifluous quality to the album material, which could be called lounge music of a particularly exquisite kind. As pleasurable as it is to listen to Hon, the rapport between the three provides as much pleasure. Drummond in particular impresses as an excellent partner to the pianist, the drummer's playing always sensitively attuned to the moment and as tasteful as the leader's; consider the lovely cymbal shadings and hi-hat accents he adds to the closing bars of “Little B's Poem” and his playing in the graceful, waltz-styled title track as simply two illustrations of Drummond's artistry. Park's no slouch either, as exemplified by the solid anchoring he brings to the material and the lively solos he contributes throughout.
Four Hon originals are featured alongside pieces by Bobby Hutcherson, Alec Wilder and Morty Palitz, and Michael Jackson, with the vibraphonist's rousing “Little B's Poem” establishing a high bar at the outset and providing an excellent vehicle for the pianist's chiming expressions and the others' supple accompaniment. Hon's mix of ascending single-line patterns and chords lends the radiant waltz a buoyant character that makes it an ideal scene-setter. Instating the trio's democratic approach early on, concise solos are taken by Park and Drummond that never arrest the flow but if anything bolster it. A lithe, samba-like feel animates “Blue Moon,” Drummond again enhancing Hon's playing with an inspired array of textures and colourations, after which the forcefully swinging “Momentarily” adds a Latin dimension to the proceedings. Much like a nightclub date, a solo piano performance appears that in the case of “Morning Star” casts the leader in a resplendent light with wistful and in places blues-tinged lead melodies animated by rippling right-hand patterns. After a rather Evans-like rendering of “While We're Young,” the trio caps the recording with a smooth cover of Jackson's “Stranger in Moscow” that's clearly more informed by funk and R&B than jazz.
Though the tracks were laid down at studios in New Jersey and various New York locations, the recording plays very much like a quintessential club date, the kind of set one could imagine Hon and company performing at Iridium or The Blue Note. Contributing to that impression are the many changes in mood, pacing, dynamics, and style that emerge over the course of the album. Close your eyes while listening to Before Dawn and you might begin to hear echoes of the appreciative applause that no doubt would arise during a live presentation of the material.
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February 19th, 2018 / Dick Metcalf, Editor
Francis plays high-energy jazz piano, and is joined by Jeong Hwan Park on bass and Billy Drummond doing drums on this most exciting March, 2018 debut jazz release!
Originally from Taipei, Taiwan, Francis moved to the U.S. in 2011, and used his well-honed piano chops (he started playing classical piano at the age of six) at the University of Texas at Austin to explore ever-expanding musical vibrancy… as you listen to his strident style on the 5:58 “Momentarily” (samples aren’t active yet, but when they go live, you’ll be able to access them), you’ll hear the fruits of his studies in jazz… this is certainly one of the most fresh jazz originals I’ve heard (yet) in 2018… the recording quality is excellent, and the players are all at the top of their game, to be sure.
You can get a splendid intimate look at the trio in action on the video Francis produced for the album as part of his Kickstarter campaign……very nicely produced, as is the album itself. In fact, that’s one of the things that really stands out on this release… each & every note is crisp and clear, and full of the vibrant life that jazz demands. While you’re on Francis’s YouTube page, be sure and subscribe to his channel.
The “proof is in the pudding”, as they say, and as you listen to Francis perform on “Morning Star“, another original composition, you will realize that he has clearly achieved his goal of melding his classical background with some of the most pertinent jazz on the scene today. I believe you will be hearing much more from this young player, so keep your ears on him.
From a jazz perspective, though, it’s another of Francis’s original compositions that won my vote for personal favorite of the seven tunes offered up for your aural enjoyment… the 8:06 “Blue Moon” highlights each of the instruments fully, and each of the players offer you their total energy and talent… you’ll be hitting “replay” often for this great tune!
I give Francis and his musical cohorts a MOST HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, with an “EQ” (energy quotient) rating of 4.99. Get more information about Francis and the album at the Francis Hon website. Rotcod Zzaj
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