Jason Kao Hwang and Sing House – Sing House 
by Doug Simpson, Audiophile Audition, January 20, 2018 


A musical building with unexpected twists, turns and passageways. 

(Jason Kao Hwang – composer, violin (tracks 1, 2, 4), viola (track 3), producer, mix engineer; Andrew Drury – drum set; Ken Filiano – string bass, mix consultant; Chris Forbes – piano; Steve Swell – trombone) 

Violinist/violist and composer Jason Kao Hwang continues his exploration of avant-garde jazz on his new quintet release, the 49-minute Sing House. For Hwang, the typical habits of Western music—echoing a theme several times; a verse/chorus/verse format; and ordinary call and response—are less useful to what he wants to create. Instead, Hwang embraces discovery, active imagination and participatory spontaneity. He does so in full on four outspread pieces which have conflict and contrast, communication and creativity, and discordance and differentiation. Pursuing a singular musical vision needs other musicians who have similar tastes in improvisation and musicology. Alongside Hwang is bassist Ken Filiano (who has played or recorded with Anthony Braxton, Vinny Golia and Nels Cline), and drummer Andrew Drury (he has collaborated with Myra Melford, Chris Speed and Jessica Lurie). Both Drury and Filiano have been participants in Hwang’s EDGE ensemble and his Burning Bridge group. Trombonist Steve Swell (see Peter Brotzmann, Kirk Knuffke and Ken Vandermark) is also a member of Burning Bridge. Hwang and pianist Chris Forbes (whose resumé includes Matt Lavelle, Nicole Mitchell and Francois Grillot) have performed as a duo and in Swell’s band. 

This is uncompromising material. There is an individualistic and specific irregularity to Hwang’s compositions. That forethought comes to the forefront on the lengthiest track, the 14-minute “No Such Thing,” which commences with a dauntingly dense, dissonant theme. The group moves in an orbit around each other seemingly at odds but always coursing along a complex axis. “No Such Thing” is forceful and accelerative. Hwang’s violin is not complementary or melodic like most jazz violins. Hwan is closer in sound and spirit to late-period John Coltrane than to, say, Stéphane Grappelli. At about the seven-minute mark, Forbes recalls McCoy Tyner when he provides a swinging piano solo which suddenly grounds “No Such Thing.” Things take an unexpected ebb when Filiano supplies a solitary solo. The whole group then jumps in with a tousled surge; and finally, the piece concludes with an Asiatic flavor highlighted by Hwang’s screeching violin, Drury’s exotic percussive touches and Swell’s painterly trombone. 

In comparison, the 12-minute “Dream Walk” is relatively moodier and dramatic. Hwang’s quiet introduction includes plucked violin notes, Drury’s filigreed percussion and Forbes’ flourished piano notes. The track’s first segment also has a bit of an Asian-tinted inspiration. But before long, the fivesome spin into a jarring area bounded by volatile keyboard and percussion bursts. The listener is no longer striding a straight musical line nor is there any pensive quality. Rather, there is a sense of darkness, or a nocturnal hallucination with shifting shadows and instability. From there, a real nightmare of fierce noises and jittery uproar blares forth. Disharmony is the rule not the exception and only fans of free jazz might enjoy hearing the tumultuous trajectory which floods much of “Dream Walk.” And yet, there is sangfroid amid the storm. The ending of “Dream Walk” has the same brooding effect which is felt at the start. The 11-minute “When What Could” is also a multilayered work which alters from one musical state to another. The ensemble circles from commodious chamber music elements to harmonious and thematic inflections, and from wildly careering commingling to free-jazz abstractions. In concept, the five musicians follow a path—there’s a distinct rhythmic flow which lasts longer than on other tunes—but at times they do what they want when they want, pushing the music wherever it may go. There are some wide-open moments, particularly when Drury, Forbes and Filiano offer solo statements; but there are also extended passages where a main motif takes centerstage. 

Jason Kao Hwang and Sing House close with the 12-minute “Inscribe,” another expertly landscaped maze of unrestricted and composed musical partitions, where unified themes are interspersed with unhindered stages of uninhibited anarchy. During “Inscribe” the band cultivates slices of impulsive beauty, eccentrically diverse pacing and asymmetrical rhythm changes. There are liberated and unconventional solos, and in-the-moment acuity. In sum, “Inscribe” is cutting edge avant-jazz and fits in well with the other forward-looking material fashioned by Hwang and his musical colleagues. Sing House balances Hwang’s careful ensemble organizing with flexible creativeness, where the music grows well beyond anything commonplace or obvious. 

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