Jason Kao Hwang Critical Response: "Book of Stories" (True Sound) 

by António Branco, jazz.pt   Read at jazz.pt

(Google translation from Portuguese)

“Book of Stories” is the debut album by the trio Critical Response, formed by violinist Jason Kao Hwang, guitarist Anders Nilsson and drummer Michael T.A. Thompson. Combining composition and improvisation, electric and organic, East and West, it is a treatise on how memories shape the future. jazz.pt has already heard it. 

Jason Kao Hwang (b. 1957) is an American violinist, composer, and improviser, the son of Chinese parents from Hunan who emigrated to the United States at the end of World War II. His recording career has proved to be very interesting to follow; in more recent years he edited “Blood” (2018), the second album of the Burning Bridges project; the following year he performed, in duo with pianist and vibraphonist Karl Berger, “Conjure”; in 2020, he released the debut record of the Human Rites Trio, with bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Andrew Drury and in 2022 “Uncharted Faith”, in a duo with electronics manipulator J.A. Dean. 

Hwang has emerged as one of the most relevant figures in both Brooklyn's more adventurous scene and New York's Lower East Side. His work spans multiple boards, both in his own projects and in collaboration with jazz luminaries and related improvised music of recent decades (Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, William Parker). One of the most striking aspects of his approach is the way he explores the sonic possibilities that result from the articulation between elements of stylistically less marked jazz, contemporary classical music and the millenary culture of his ancestors, from works for small groups to an opera (“ The Floating Box: A Story in Chinatown”), passing through free improvisation, always with abundant degrees of freedom. 

What Hwang, with Swedish guitarist Anders Nilsson (based in New York since 2000; Anders Nilsson Group, AORTA, Kalabalik) and drummer Michael T. A. Thompson (from a huge list of collaborations, remember those with Uri Caine, Marc Ribot, Matthew Shipp, William Parker, Joe McPhee, Oliver Lake, Dennis González, Henry Grimes) reach – like Critical Response, a trio formed in 2018 and interrupted by the pandemic – in “Book of Stories”, it is not insignificant, more than half a century after the advent of the so-called “fusion jazz” (a term I disagree with, as I said, right away because it is redundant: jazz has always been a music of fusions). While the Afrofuturist experimentalism of its pioneering manifestations may have evolved in more commercial directions, it intersected briefly but decisively with avant-garde jazz in the New York loft scene, whose inspiring stylistic intersections reverberate throughout music to the present day. our time. 

It is evident that the violinist is no stranger to cross-pollination processes, having distinguished himself among the distinguished alumni of the loft scene. Hwang has developed a visionary musical alchemy, articulating composition and improvisation, mixing contemporary and creative music, integrating East and West in a multifarious and coherent proposal. His approach to the electric violin reformulates and particularly emphasizes these synergies. What we are given to listen to in “Book of Stories” is an interaction between the vertices of this isosceles sonic triangle, which takes on different configurations. Noteworthy is the close relationship (honed in other projects over the years) between the lyrical or rougher wanderings of Hwang's violin, often quite processed, and Thompson's effervescent or delicate drums. Regarding the new album, Hwang underlined: «In “Book of Stories”, based on composition, improvisation, synergy and the search for truth, Critical Response challenges the disillusionment and division that surround this moment in history. “Michael T.A. Thompson and I performed many times with choreographer/dancer Patricia Nicholson. Both Michael and the late J.A. Deane encouraged me to explore multiple processing. I've been listening to Anders Nilsson for years and I knew this trio would come together, and it did. We started in 2018, before the pandemic. “I am grateful that we can now share this music with the world”, reinforces the violinist. 

From the opening piece, “The Power of Many in the Soul of One”, dedicated to Joshua Wong, leader of the Hong Kong democracy movement, the longest on the album, soon emerges the scrutinizing electric violin, accosted by the guitar and the propulsive drums by Thompson: a layer of open lyricism is joined by rhythmic density; a passage follows in which a groove is installed that violin, and then guitar, ride. One then enters a phase of abstraction that grows in intensity. When everything is serene, Hwang's violin hovers, watchful. In the end is silence. Inspired by his youthful years in the East Village during the 1980s, the very interesting “Upside Circle Down” brings a kaleidoscopic atmosphere made of electric timbres, circumnavigating the musical globe in the blink of an eye – from blues-tinged passages to echoes of a tradition that is lost in the night of time. Pay special attention to the sense of final improvisation. 

“a silent ghost follows”, a title spelled just like that, in lowercase, perhaps to underline the silence, is more solemn and disturbing, a musical translation of a recurring dream, a known ghost, therefore. Short phrases in unison launch solo, duo or trio improvisations. Reminiscent of the pieces with bone engravings that he observed in his childhood home, “Dragon Carved into Bone” is an urgent and vertiginous piece with allusions to the punk and electronic scene of downtown New York; the three musicians undertake a turbulent journey, with collective improvisations and passages imbued with an odd funk. “Friends Forever”, a ballad dedicated to clarinetist, flutist and saxophonist Will Connell, Jr. and drummer Takeshi Zen Matsuura, both now long gone, members of Hwang's first group, the quartet Commitment, of fleeting existence (the bassist was William Parker, still very active today), closes the album in a serene and wistful tone, again with appeal to the blues, but in a forward-looking perspective, with no time for spurious nostalgia. 

“Book of Stories” reveals a remarkable collaborative effort between Jason Kao Hwang, Anders Nilsson and Michael T. A. Thompson, which starts from a ballast of memories to envision possibilities for the future. That's the critical answer.