Jason Kao Hwang

Burning Bridge
Innova 840

Creating a musical program that relates both to multiculturalism and the melting pot, violinist Jason Kao Hwang’s archetype is true to disparate traditions while melding them into a distinctive musical form. Using instruments from the Jazz, notated music and Chinese traditions his ideas are expressed with an octet, giving him both the flexibility of a small combo plus many of the sonic colors available from a larger ensemble.

Someone whose choice of instruments links him to the so-called classical tradition, Hwang’s experience encompasses experiments with a combo whose members all played Oriental instruments, as well as expressive improvisational cooperation with the likes of bassist William Parker, saxophonist Joe McPhee and cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum.

Burning Bridge avoids the Jazz-identified saxophones. But Bynum is on board here along with two other strong brass soloists: trombonist Steve Swell and tubaist Joseph Daley; the Far East-oriented instrumentalists are Wang Guowei on erhu and Sun Li on pipa; while bassist Ken Filiano, drummer Andrew Drury and Hwang negotiate the interconnectivity among the sounds. Among the sonic expressions referenced on the CD are Jazz-swing; suggestions of Chinese court music; extended aleatory and atonal textures; and on one track references to Protestant hymns. Not only does the violinist have the talents of eight instrumentalists with which to express his ideas, but extended techniques from all concerned reference other, less-specified tones. As he says: “I like that zone where sounds are not easily identified, blending and diverging in secret.”

The processional church-like theme is present on “Worship, Whirling” where it is first interrupted by Bynum’s tongue fluttering on top of cacophonous drum clatters; followed by an unusual duet between the tuba’s rugged smears and the minor-key mysticism of the erhu; then ricochets back to Jazz with Swell’s plunger work. Before the hymn-like mode exits in mid-tempo following a theme-encapsulating bass solo, Hwang’s exciting double stopping and staccato runs define the narrative as tuba lines puff drums roll and pop.

More Orientalized, but no way Sino-shackled, “Incense, In Sense” and “Ocean, O Sun” highlights Li’s speedy rasgueado licks and slurred fingering from the pipa as well as the stabbing intensity of Guowei’s erhu tone. But neither is segregated into an ethic sequence. The former, for instance is framed by Bynum plunger grace notes in the head and recapitulation. The latter is part of an interlude that manages to uniquely blend Oriental and Occidental textures and serves as another showcase for Hwang. Separated by band crescendos Hwang’s playing encompasses soaring bent notes plus a sequence where he appears to bow in such a manner that the characteristics of each fiddle string can be heard simultaneously. Also heard are powerful pipa strokes and tremolo accents from the lowest portion of Filiano’s bass strings.

Most of the narrative tropes plus distinctive genre mixing are prefigured on “Ashes, Essence”, the CD’s nearly 22-minute exposition. Pedal-point tuba smears, triple-tonguing vamps from Swell and Bynum, juddering percussion inserts from Drury, and shrill erhu tones that resemble those of a squeeze toy are included. Each is showcased as individual a capella sequences and massed orchestral passages alternate in a polished, but not predictable fashion. Some of the sounds even fool the ear. At junctures piano chording and banjo picking seem to be audibly added to the other instrumental tones, though neither instrument is present.

All and all, Hwang manages to celebrate and transcend sounds and influences on this CD. Hopefully audiences will be as open minded in their appreciative listening as he and his associates are in their playing.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Ashes, Essence 2. Worship, Whirling 3. Fiery, Far Away 4. Incense, In Sense 5. Ocean, O Sun

Personnel: Taylor Ho Bynum (cornet and flugelhorn); Steve Swell (trombone); Joseph Daley (tuba); Jason Kao Hwang (violin); Wang Guowei (erhu); Sun Li (pipa); Ken Filiano (bass) and Andrew Drury (drums)