Live at Sangha
Bmadish Records Gift002-2

Graphic Evidence
Asian Improv AIR0066

Four years and a set of assumptions separate these two dates, which display two views of violinist Jason (Kao) Hwang.

Superficially the Energy Music produced by the fiddler, trumpeter Roy Campbell and drummer William Hooker on LIVE AT SANGHA could be heard as Hwang’s electric side. The more meditative GRAPHIC EVIDENCE, which finds him partnered by soprano saxophonist Francis Wong and bassist Tatsu Aoki plus Wu Man on pipa on two tracks, can be heard as Hwang’s acoustic side. Actually they’re two sides of the same coin – an American one.

For GRAPHIC, recorded in 2000, finds three (or four) musicians expressing their variant on improvisation by adapting some of the sounds, and all of their identity, as Asian-Americans. More brutal, SANGHA’s tracks may symbolically sound that way since the fiddler’s confreres are two accomplished African-American musicians, who bring their history – and in Hooker’s case an appreciation for hard rock – to this outing.

Don’t be distracted by the sociological subtext however, GRAPHIC EVIDENCE is memorable and LIVE AT SANGHA a little less so because of its strong musicianship. The reason the first CD scores higher is due to the subtlety of its creation. SANGHA almost bludgeons you with its sonic brutality.

Nearly exhausting in its fervor, the CD is a warts-and-all record of a Campbell-Hooker-Hwang Maryland gig in 2004. A powerful percussionist who has held his own with guitarist Lee Renaldo of Sonic Youth, yet manipulates his kit so that it makes common cause in duets with violinist Billy Bang, Hooker maintains irregular patterning and probing flams, ruffs, rebounds and bounces as he plays here. Around him, Campbell outputs shrill, gritty triplets with a jazz linkage at points, and slurred rubato grace notes elsewhere. Although Hwang isn’t listed as playing electronics, considering resonating wah-wahs and distorted note patterns are heard, he’s certainly plugged into something.

As the fiddler applies bow pressure one-quarter of the way through to expand the strident theme, Campbell’s open horn asides congeal into a gentler counter melody. With insinuations of “Scheherazade” issuing from his horn, Hwang introduces sul ponticello vibrato to create additional multiphonics, as Hooker turns from off-handed beats to pinpointed rolls and pulses. Sonically traveling further east, the trumpeter brings out his flute for a snake-charmer-style melody, while the fiddler’s flanges produces plunger-like distortion.

Moving the improvisation west, the drummer’s configuration soon respond with Native American-like beats mixed with a few Aboriginal war whoops. Back to the trumpet, Campbell introduces spectacular staccato growls without fouling the melodic strength of his contributions. On the piece’s concluding minutes, the violinist unleashes Jean-Luc Ponty-style screaming runs and raw glissandi that reverberate with phaser-like impulses. The resulting crackle and crunch fuse the other two voices into triple counterpoint, including rough drum rhythms and splayed and spittle-encrusted trumpet high notes. Shattering the interface, Hooker announces his coda with a conclusive drum roll.

GRAPHIC’s most percussive element is the pedal-point bottom provided by Chicago bassist Tatsu Aoki, who knows a thing about saxophone textures, having worked extensively with Fred Anderson and Roscoe Mitchell. His woody vibrations, that resonate the instrument’s frame as well as its strings, are fully in the jazz-improv tradition, yet the unabashed power he brings can also be related to the sound of the taiko drum, which is very familiar to the Tokyo-born Aoki. In spite of this, while the two tracks with pipa or four-string lute player Wu Man are superficially more Oriental – with Hwang’s violin textures suggesting those of a two-stringed erhu and Francis Wong’s soprano sax becoming a purported suona or Chinese oboe, Aoki has no trouble finding a part. He has played extensively with these and other traditional instrumentalists – he even recorded a duet CD with Man.

“Blood Falling Out-of-Bounds” is the most representative trio outing with the piece ending up as an Oriental blues. Sounding at one point as if he’s stroking rubberized balloon material, Hwang slithers out the tremolo blues licks as Aoki double stops with an unvarying pulse.

Wong, who has recorded in more traditional jazz settings with masters like California cornetist Bobby Bradford and the Art Ensemble’s drummer Famoudou Don Moye, often uses echoing soprano saxophone trills to effect a harmonic convergence with Hwang’s slurred and splayed lines. Contrapuntal, the bassist’s powerful string bumping on “Invocation and Resonance” keeps the tune grounded when Hwang’s fiddling slithers into shrill whistling and Wong sideslips to narrow reed bites.

As for Hwang, while his Asian side is sometime expressed in higher-pitched arco whines, his Americanism comes to the fore in popping pegbox thumps or delicate finger-picking shuffles that turn his fiddle into a Bluegrass mandolin.

Melting pot or multi-cultural improvisations are exposed on both these notable discs.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Graphic: 1. To the Endless Embrace of Light* 2, Innovation and Resonance 3. Microscopic 4. Blood Falling Out-of-Bounds 5, Door Beneath an Arch 6. Transparent Tapestry 7. Alluvial Fan 8. Before Memory Begins

Personnel: Graphic: Francis Wong (soprano saxophone); Jason Hwang (violin): Wu Man (pipa)*; Tatsu Aoki (bass)

Track Listing: 1. Sangha: Live at Sangha

Personnel: Roy Campbell (trumpet and flute); Jason Hwang (violin); William Hooker (drums)