Jason Kao Hwang Burning Bridge 
True Sound TS 01 
by Troy Collins , Point of Departure

Violinist Jason Kao Hwang has been a venerable presence in New York’s Downtown avant-garde scene since the 1970s, having worked with a cross-section of creative artists, from new music pioneers like Butch Morris and Pauline Oliveros to innovative improvisers like William Parker and Reggie Workman. In addition to ensembles such as Edge, Sing House, and Spontaneous River, Hwang currently leads Burning Bridge, an inimitable cross-cultural octet. Founded in 2009 with help from a grant by Chamber Music America/New Jazz Works, the band includes Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet, trombonist Steve Swell, tuba player Joseph Daley, bassist Ken Filiano, and drummer Andrew Drury, in addition to Chinese musicians Sun Li on pipa (four-string lute), and Wang Guowei on erhu (two-string spike fiddle). Together they transcend cultural assumptions about the traditional roles played by their respective instruments in classical, jazz, and folk music settings, forging a singular voice that seamlessly combines Eastern and Western aesthetics. 

Blood is the follow-up to the group’s 2012 self-titled debut for Innova Records. A continuous work subdivided into five movements, the piece premiered at Edgefest in 2016, was performed at the 2017 Vision Festival, and eventually recorded in a studio the following year. Blood translates the violence of war into a catharsis of sound, transposing suffering into liberation. As Hwang explains it, he pondered the emotional traumas of war and how they reverberate across generations, exemplified by the harrowing experiences of fellow musicians and his mother’s plight in China during WWII: “She was in a pharmacy that was bombed by the Japanese. Knocked unconscious, she awoke as the lone survivor surrounded by the dead. I also thought about the musicians I’ve worked with who fought in Viet Nam, like Billy Bang and Butch Morris.” Hwang’s goal is to transpose memories of bloodshed into the sound of protest, in defiance of humanity’s endless state of war. Conceptually, this is a disturbing, but ultimately inspiring program. While the overall structure of the piece lacks clear resolution, the impassioned interactions among unorthodox instrumental combinations demonstrate how a collective ideology can transcend apparent differences. 

The opener, “Breath Within the Bomb,” emulates the shockwave from an explosion with rumbling percussion, strident bowed bass, and reverberating low brass. Drury’s cacophonous frenzy intensifies the collective claustrophobia, but tranquility returns at the coda with an Eastern-infused dialogue between violin and pipa. Divided in two, “Surge” begins with a somber ceremonial procession that transforms into a bluesy strut, concluding with a ritualized ensemble passage. The first part features exceptional solo statements from Hwang, Bynum, Guowei, and Li; the second is more austere, spotlighting a stately pipa and percussion duet, and flinty triadic interplay between trombone, erhu and bass. Like a vibrant technicolor interlude, “Evolution” arrives mid-way through the suite, offering relief. The buoyant blues-based call-and-response structure highlights Bynum and Swell’s exploratory lyricism, Li and Guowei’s exotic asides, and the leader’s own indigo-hued contributions. “Declarations” re-sounds the alarm, reprising the tension heard at the beginning with Filiano’s arco rumination, Daley’s mournful tuba, and Hwang’s tender lament pulled into focus before the ensemble concludes the suite with an anguished, unresolved theme. 

With Blood, Hwang and Burning Bridge integrate the evocative tonalities of traditional Chinese instruments with the more conventional timbres of Western ones for compelling dialogues designed to challenge and respond to the violence of war. By varying arrangements, Hwang implies an array of cinematic scenarios that equate with different states of mind. While many artists would compose a finale of harmonic resolution, Hwang remains steadfast, driving the point home by sonically suggesting that the lingering effects of violence never abate, nor serve any greater purpose. If there is any hope to be found here, it is in the perseverance of the human spirit. 

Read at Point of Departure