António Branco interviews Jason Kao Hwang
(Note: I met António Branco in June 2005, while I was in Portugal performing with Ravish Momin's Trio Tarana at the Tondella Festival.)
AB: You have a Chinese origin. In what way you incorporate elements of the milenar
Chinese culture into your music? How is that important to you?
JKH: I strive for a music in which my cultural heritage contributes in a process that is organic, inspired by awareness, engaged by intellect and driven by instinct as opposed to contrived notions.
My parents escaped from Hunan, China in the 1940's, during World War II. I grew up in Waukegan, Illinois, about an hour north of Chicago. During my childhood, there weren't any Asian American musicians, movie stars, authors or politician role models for me to emulate. The culture celebrated a rogue's gallery of racial stereotypes, rendering real Asian Americans invisible.
I witnessed the hardships my parents endured as an invisible and largely powerless minority. I am a part of the Asian American movement that gained definition and force in the late 1970's. The rejection of exotic stereotypes, a refusal to be marginalized and the assertion of truthful identities are amongst the core values still fought for in Asian America today.
Your questions are important to me. When I teach "Asian American Music", a course I created for New York University, I begin with Hazrat Inayat Khan's "Music of Life". He perceives the world as vibration, not only physical and atomic vibrations, but also, emotional and historical. We know this from experience; it's a tangible fact. We have felt the sad resonance of an empty room where someone had grieved. We have sensed joy or anger from another over the telephone, without verbal or visual cue.
We humans are musical instruments, receiving and resonating the vibrations of life from day 1. When I was a baby looking up at my parents, I watched how they laughed and walked. My laughter and body language resemble my parents. Surprisingly, within my emotions run currents of their instincts as well.
EDGE is the vibration of instincts, resonating a music where true identities and cultural affirmation are imagined, constructed and affirmed.
I search for vibrations. I listen to the inflections of the Chinese language. I listen to Chinese opera, the huqin(Chinese violin family), pipa (Chinese guitar) and South Indian violin. On "Threads", the second cut of the CD, my tremelo pizzicato was inspired by the pipa players I've worked with over the years, - Tang Liang Xing, Min Xiao Fen and Wu Man. These vibrations are easy to perceive because surface "markers" of ethnicity are apparent via technique. There are many more vibrations that participate in the creation of my music that are equally potent within the soul of the sound, yet lack the identifiable markers of existence.
AB: Can you describe us the new record, "Edge"? The compositions in it are all yours?
What are the contribution of the other musicians? Tell us about the "making of"...
JKH: EDGE features Taylor Ho Bynum (cornet, flugelhorn), Ken Filiano (string bass), Andrew Drury (percussion) and myself (violin). The compositions are mine, conceived to empower the individuality of each musician's voice full-force.
Taylor and I first met in the mid-90's, while playing in Anthony Braxton's oratorios and operas. I met Andrew in trombonist Jeff Hoyer's band. He later subbed for Satoshi Takeishi in my previous quartet, The Far East Side Band. Ken introduced himself after hearing me play electric violin pitch-shifted two octaves down with William Hooker/ The Gift at Dee Pop's CB's series. When he complimented my "bass" playing, I couldn't stop smiling. Taylor, Ken and Andrew inspire and fulfill my compositions with their great talent and positive spirits.
During the fall of 2004 through early 2005, EDGE played a series of gigs around NYC. On May 6th we recorded all the music at Kaleidoscope Sound, a studio located in North Bergen, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from New York.
The recording was my learning vehicle as a sound engineer, which is why it took so long to finish. Over the next six months, I edited and then mixed the tracks probably a dozen times before bringing in engineer Paul Geluso and mastering engineer Paul Zinman for the final work. It sounds very good.
AB: What is the connection between "Edge" and your previous works?
JKH: EDGE marks my full-fledged return to improvisational music. My last CD with my own ensemble, The Far East Side Band, was "Urban Archaeology" (Victo Records) in 1996. Though I never stopped gigging, ever, from 1998 through 2001, I was primarily dedicated to the composition and production of my chamber opera, "The Floating Box, A Story in Chinatown." The opera took a lot out of me. Thankfully after the double CD was released last year, the reviews have been excellent. Opera News magazine named it one of their top ten opera recordings of 2005. Gradually, around 2004, I've been coming back to the scene, working with Ravish Momin's Trio Tarana, William Hooker/ The Gift and Pheeroan Aklaff's Malcheck Muzikum. Those bands inspired me to start my own group once again.
With The Far East Side Band and The Floating Box, traditional Asian instruments were key elements. The timbre and intervallic language inherent to those instruments shed light upon my own internal vibrations, previously rendered "invisible." I began to understand how my music, because of my history, could only grow outside of genre. (Anthony Braxton, whom I worked with in the mid-90's, was a greater inspiration in this regard.) New paths opened up before me. I sought to create a singular American musical language embracing the affinities and impediments of multiple traditions. The paths led to an EDGE where musical dialogue must take place.
So I formed the band EDGE, primarily orchestrated according to the improvisational voices of the musicians, as opposed to instrumentation only. EDGE follows the same path as these previous projects, but with an expanding knowledge of vibration within architectural flow. Edge within edge.
AB: The new album will be out on Asian Improv Records. WhatÂ´s the role of this record label?
JKH: I am grateful to Asian Improv for releasing EDGE. They do a great service to all their artists with first-rate packaging, distribution and promotion. Run by bassist Tatsu Aoki and Francis Wong, who are both wonderful musicians and my band mates in the collective trio Graphic Evidence, Asian Improv have been passionate crusaders for Asian American jazz. Asian Improv is the biggest reason why the term "Asian American jazz" is part of the critical lexicon.
AB: You, Ken Filiano, Andrew Drury and Taylor Ho Bynum seem to be very close. How does that influence your music? Is there some kind of special chemistry between you?
JKH: I've attached the CD back and front cover, which has our pictures. These guys are the best. Each of them are monstrous players that motivate and inspire my work.
AB: You presented the new record in New York, in January. How was the public reaction to it?
JKH: The gig at Barbes was our first, and the energy was great. The second gig at The Stone was even better. The performances opened the compositions up into new territories. Everybody's playing was inventive and audience response was wonderful.
We're looking forward to our next gig, a CD release party at the Stone on March 21st. Butch Morris, the curator for the month of March, generously gave us two sets, at 8 and 10pm. For the first set, we'll play music from the CD. The second set will be all new music that will eventually be recorded.
AB: What are your plans to promote the new record? Are you planning to come to Europe?
JKH: I hope to perform with EDGE as much as possible these coming years. I've contacted a couple dozen European festivals, hoping to snag a few!
Put in a good word for EDGE in Portugal?