Jason Kao Hwang + Edge, Crossroads Unseen, Euonymus Records EU02
Jason Kao Hwang + Spontaneous River, Symphony of Souls, Mulatta Records MUL022
Review by Ed Hazell, pointofdepature.org, 2011
On his two latest releases, violinist-composer Jason Hwang works at a mature level of creativity in two very different settings. Crossroads Unseen, the third release from his Edge quartet, affirms his ability to sustain a working band and continue to find new changes for musicians and listeners. On Symphony of Souls, he assembles a special project – a composition for improvising string orchestra – with a limited lifespan and develops it into a fully realized work. Hwang’s composition fits the 40-piece Spontaneous River ensemble like a glove and his conduction of the band and score is quite simply one of the best ever recorded.
Edge, with Hwang on violin and viola, cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, bassist Ken Filiano, and drummer Andrew Drury, has developed into one of most celebratory bands in jazz, a band that can take listeners on journeys of catharsis, or into the mysteries of self-identity, or the spiritual unknown and leave them feeling uplifted, enriched, and even entertained. Hwang’s compositions, with their vivid melodies and formal inventiveness, wear their craftsmanship and serious intentions lightly. The quartet plays them with feeling and imagination and an air of delighted discovery.
For example, “The Path Around the House” leads the band all over the place. From an atmospheric sound tapestry to a melody voiced by the bass, to riffs and long lines, to funky rhythms, there’s a surprise around every corner. Hwang and Bynum both take a very composerly approach to their solos, giving their phrases the same general shape but still applying lots of variation within them. Different combinations of instruments keep the density of the music and the timbres in constant flux as well. Filiano’s unaccompanied solo jettisons the tempo, opens up the space, and mutes the volume of the preceding collective improvisation, then gradually picks up the pace to set up an especially knotty composed line and a funky riff. A drum solo immediately follows, once again shifting the performance in a new direction. The title track also infuses contrasts into the development of the performance, blends composition and improvisation, and orchestrates the band members into different combinations.
The band’s eagerness and enthusiasm are as important to the music’s infectious exuberance and intellectual engagement as Hwang’s composing. “Transients” flows nicely through its several themes, but the solos and group interplay make it a vibrant and constantly surprising track. Hwang’s solo sports beautifully inflected phrases with terminal upward and downward curves that position the notes in ambiguous relationships to tonality. Filiano’s unaccompanied bass solo is full of lovely overtones and drones and dancing rhythmic figures that mesh with Drury’s drums. Bynum injects the blues into the opening of his solo, then kites the music upward with optimistic phrases that spiral skyward. The music overflows with color and feeling and joyful swing.
Hwang’s Symphony of Souls for string orchestra and percussion is clearly written by someone with an intimate understanding of strings. He knows where the sweet spots lie on the instruments when he writes a melody for them and the score fits very comfortably on the instruments. There is, of course, a tremendous diversity of sound within the string family, and Hwang seems intent on using as wide a range of them as he can in this piece. He coaxes a diversity of colors and textures from the orchestra in “Movement Four,” assembling different groupings of instruments, asking for different techniques, and highlighting the unique voices of the soloists. He swaths the basses in a penumbra of violins, a cello solos over tremolos and long tones. Then the lyrical tranquility gives way to tense scrapes, dry swipes and scratches, a sound that grows like a thunderhead and inspires the same awe. He loves to arrange large groupings in different ways. He masses the violins into a big swooping flock in “Movement Ten,” then breaks up the coordinated mass into individual overlapping soloists, until another huge formation with an entirely different character, dense and busy, emerges. “Movement Seven” explores another aspect of string sound with a lively plucked melody that sets up pizzicato guitar solos that form an intricate braid. Then he abruptly changes direction, building a tense vertical wall of sound with a dark vein of heavy bass lines running through it.
Hwang’s conduction of the score is alert and insightful. Transitions between movements are smooth; soloists are cued in and out in groupings and sequences that fit organically with the written parts; the ensemble or instrumental sections are deployed for contrast, support, disruption, or continuity. The result is a seamless merger of written and improvised music that seems to live and breathe and grow as it unfolds. Conductor and ensemble work together effortlessly in this beautifully balanced and thrilling collaborative effort; it’s unlike anything else in Hwang’s recorded output. –Ed Hazell
- Point of Departure, Ed Hazell - January 9, 2012