As the plane broke cloud cover over Uruguay, 13-year-old Alex Han tightened his grip on the armrests.
Sitting in his home two months later, Alex recalls the moment vividly; his body goes stiff, his thin fingers curl into claws and he arches his back slightly as he digs into the soft armchair. "I was like this. I hate flying," he says, and he repeats it the way kids do when they want their point to be understood without any doubt: "Hate. Flying." He grins nervously, through the memory of his fear and descent.
In truth, Alex admits, he'd been white-knuckling it all the way from Scottsdale, where he lives with his parents and his 4-year-old brother, Cameron. Once they were on the ground, once he got out of the plane, he started to feel better.
And by the time he walked onstage that night at the sixth annual Punta del Este International Jazz Festival -- alongside Paquito D'Rivera, Jon Faddis, Lewis Nash, Kenny Barron and a host of other performers -- Alex Han was positively in his element.
A few years ago, like every other skinny little boy his age, Alex Han spent a fair amount of time playing video games and watching TV. His parents wanted to introduce him to other things he could spend his time on; creative things, activities that would allow him to invest longer amounts of time, building skills whose progress he could track.
Music lessons seemed to fit the need, and Alex picked up the alto sax in 1996 when he was 8 years old. The Hans were living in north Jersey. There were teachers available, and New York wasn't too far away. It took about a year for Alex's private teachers to tell John and Luisa Han something about their son they'd suspected, but couldn't be sure about on their own. Alex was gifted, maybe exceptionally so.
By August 1999, his extraordinary talent was a matter of common knowledge around town, but John Han, who had become his son's biggest promoter, didn't know how to proceed. John got in contact with Jack Kreisberg, at New York's Blue Note Club. I've got this son, he said. I'm not sure what to do.
"John sent me a tape," Kreisberg says, "and I listened to it on my way home, in the car. It was very interesting. It wasn't that Alex had a great technique or anything -- he was small, he didn't have the lungs for a sustained approach -- but he sounded like he understood the genre. He had a very developed melodic sense."
Kreisberg had been in the jazz business for 35 years. He'd heard young players before, so he wasn't inclined to be impressed just because Alex was three and a half feet tall and could hold a sax without falling over. But that tape intrigued him.
A few weeks later, Kreisberg was preparing to record Paquito D'Rivera live at the Blue Note. Why don't you bring your son to sound check, he asked John.
"Paquito and I were talking after sound check, up in the office," Kreisberg remembers, "and I said, 'Look, I know this is weird, but could I play you something?'"
Kreisberg put on Alex's tape. Paquito listened. "Who is this?" he asked.
"Who does it sound like?"
Sounds like Benny Carter, Paquito thought.
They listened to the next song. And the next. And the next. D'Rivera was stumped: "This isn't Benny Carter?" he asked for the third time. "Who is this?"
Kreisberg smiled, then told him.
D'Rivera was a child prodigy himself, had survived being a talented youth and come out the other side successful and well-adapted. "A lot of young players," says Kreisberg, "they get misdirected and they burn out really quickly, or they go off on their own path and nothing happens at all. You don't want either of those things to happen." But John was looking for help. Maybe D'Rivera could give the Hans some advice, Kreisberg thought.
Between sets at the Blue Note, D'Rivera went out and bought a Benny Carter disc for Alex. Alex, who is open and honest about his still-growing musical knowledge, didn't know Carter, had never heard the name. "Well," said D'Rivera, "you sound just like him."
"And the rest," says Kreisberg with a trace of irony, "is history."
Not yet. But it will be.
The Hans recently settled into their new home in North Scottsdale. Alex likes it. He likes his classes. He's making friends. After school he practices an hour and a half each day, and then does his homework. He doesn't come to the door in a Coltrane tee shirt. He's not running through finger exercises while he talks ("Alex isn't a jazz police," offers Kreisberg). He doesn't look out with haunted eyes from within the cage of tortured genius. He's a talented kid. He doesn't seem to aspire to be more, at least for the moment.
Alex, who talks about his abilities with a surprising critical awareness ("I think I can only hear myself getting better in the last year"), speaks quietly about his travels and his schoolwork. When the talk turns to playing, however, he becomes animated, his eyes wide and his smile fuller. "I listen to a lot more music now," he says. His father always played jazz around the house, but recently Alex has been listening more closely, trying to learn specific lessons from the sounds. "John Coltrane. Cannonball Adderley. Johnny Griffin," he reels off the names of his favorites. "I want to do this," he says with clarity. "I want to be a musician."
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.
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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