Ascension

13-year-old Scottsdale saxophone prodigy Alex Han prepares for takeoff

In truth, he's one already. Alex's performance at the Punta del Este festival (at D'Rivera's invitation) is only one of roughly a dozen travel dates over the past year or so. In February 2000 he was D'Rivera's guest at a show at the Lincoln Center. He's performed twice at the John F. Kennedy Performing Arts Center in Washington, D.C. -- the first time as a Panasonic Young Soloist award winner, and the second time on the Center's Millennium Stage. He played in September 2000, as the invited guest of Mayor Rudy Giuliani, at Gracie Mansion in New York City. If he's nothing else at his age, Alex Han is accredited; John Han will enter the conversation and tell you all this, very willingly, while Alex stares out the window with careful patience.

Alex's dad doesn't come on like a stage father. He does, however, behave like a man trying desperately to come to grips with the responsibilities attendant on his son's talent, a talent he can't gauge for himself. John Han is moving in circles he's not entirely sure how to navigate yet, and with his son's increasing profile it's only getting harder.

"When I contacted Jazz on the Rocks [an internationally rated festival in Sedona] about Alex, they told me they were interested in hearing him, but they really only worked with established names," John says with a touch of disappointment. "But we're in touch with a lot of other people," he adds after a beat, looking at his son, who's still looking away.

"I want to do this," says the babyfaced Han. "I want to 
be a musician."
"I want to do this," says the babyfaced Han. "I want to be a musician."
Han -- seen here performing in Times Square -- has 
caused a minor sensation in New York jazz circles.
Han -- seen here performing in Times Square -- has caused a minor sensation in New York jazz circles.

It's true: The International Jazz Festival of Montreal has expressed interest in having Alex perform, as have the North Sea Jazz Festival in Holland and a few organizers in Hawaii. Alex stares out the window at the blue sky from his new home in the desert: waiting, kicking one leg. He's humming softly.


"He's a natural," says D'Rivera. "That's where his playing, his expressiveness comes from. Before we performed in Uruguay we were running through the songs at rehearsal, and his rhythm was very straight, very structured. I told Alex, 'Look, this number, it's in a Latin beat, but there's more to Latin music than the rhythm. There's melody, too, you know? You have to be melodic in this section.' And he listened, and we played it back again, and he got it. He got it exactly right, the first time. Alex listens. For a boy who never paid attention to jazz until recently, that's his gift."

Alone in his room after school, Alex says, he's trying to work out of the clinical approach he started with, trying to get away from playing by ear. D'Rivera is encouraging him in his attempts to learn to read music, versus going at it through mimicry.

"But I still try to solo a lot," he says. "I play with CDs and I try to solo."

He's getting better, he thinks, because of all the public performances. "When I practice, I like it. But when I play on a stage, it's a lot better. I love it." He says it again: "I love playing." His body is loose, his hands relaxed, folded motionless between his knees.

Just today Alex Han found out he shares his birthday, October 21, with Dizzy Gillespie. It's a coincidence, of course, and nothing more. But he leans forward in his chair, listening for it: the sound of whatever happens next.

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