Uncharted Faith

António Branco, jazz.pt

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(translation from Portuguese)

The American violinist, composer and improviser Jason Kao Hwang (b. 1957) - son of Chinese parents from Hunan who emigrated to the United States at the end of World War II - has been very busy in recent years (including the pandemic period). In 2018 he released "Blood", the second volume of the Burning Bridges project; the following year he offered us, in duo with pianist and vibraphonist Karl Berger, the remarkable "Conjure"; in 2020 he released the debut album of the Human Rites Trio, with bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Andrew Drury. 

Hwang has long established himself as one of the most interesting voices in the creative melting pot that remains of New York's Lower East Side. Developing a multi-mode work, both in his own name and in collaboration with leading names in jazz and related improvised music of our time (Braxton, Threadgill, Parker), he has been able to explore a wide range of sonic possibilities that emerge from the articulation between elements of less restrained jazz, contemporary classical music, and ancient Chinese culture. His robust classical training allows him to play with equal proficiency on various boards, from opera ("The Floating Box: A Story in Chinatown" is highly recommended) to free improvisation, without ever getting stylistically stuck.  

He has just released "Uncharted Faith", another duo album, this time with electronic artist J. A. Deane (1950-2021), aka Dino to his closest friends, who started his career as a trombonist in the L.A. Horns - who toured with Tina Turner in the 1970's -, played with John Zorn (he participated in the recordings of "Cobra" in 1985 and 1986) and Jon Hassell, among others. A tireless explorer, Deane creates intriguing electronic worlds, which find in Hwang's mutant electric violin a valuable counterpart. In this collaboration developed in the midst of the pandemic, Deane and Hwang exchanged tracks and ideas, responding to each other with a synergy rooted in the days when they improvised together in various formations led by Butch Morris in the mid-1980s. Tragically, Deane passed away in 2021 at a time when the violinist was finishing recording his parts, and was not present for the final stage of the process. "Uncharted Faith" is the duo's ultimate sonic journey. 

After the passing of his partner, Colleen Mulvihill, in 2019, Deane moved from Denver to a small country house in Cortez, Colorado. There, accompanied by his two dogs, he finished writing the book "Becoming Music, Conducting & Improvisation as Forms of QiGong," which he sent to Hwang in December 2020. The violinist responded by sending his CDs, including the aforementioned "Conjure," a duet with Karl Berger, which he especially enjoyed. Despite the constraints posed by the pandemic situation, both agreed to collaborate on a duo recording. In January 2021, Hwang watched Deane's performance via the Zoom at the Red Room in Baltimore. "His ghostly symphonies, vivid and lush with unique sounds, were incredibly beautiful," the violinist said. They exchanged more ideas and the project gained renewed momentum. "Dino proposed that I send him five- to 10-minute solo acoustic violin improvisations. He would work with that, then return the tracks to me to overdub." All of the parts by both musicians are completely improvised. 

In May of that year, Deane cryptically mentioned health problems to Hwang. Among other considerations, he wrote: "Each track was created on a live digital audio workstation (the original sounds were altered and modified intensely) and then performed and recorded in real time. I am obsessed with exploring, exploding and exalting the DNA of sound. There is no doubt that many of these pieces are harmonically dense. I encourage you to embrace and multiply that density with multiple overdubs, if you choose to go that route." The challenge was on. Two months later, Hwang completed the process on electric violin, asking Deane to send him one more track, which, surprisingly, was already done. 

Deane's words are prescient: "I've been avoiding this because I didn't want to negatively shade your contribution to what will probably be the final project of my life." He had throat cancer in an advanced stage and decided not to receive treatment. Hwang's response says it all: "I know your journey forward will be full of beauty and wonder, just like your music.” " In mid-July, the violinist began sending mixes which Deane commented on, giving suggestions for improvement and asking Hwang to give them titles and complete the production. Deane left on the 23rd of that month, at the age of 71. 

The music he created remotely in tandem with Hwang defies category. In "Parallel Universe" the electronics find an ally in the strong processing of the violin, in successive waves, creating a dense and enigmatic ambience, which is somehow present in the following piece, "Singularity", in which Hwang's violin emerges with greater clarity sounding halfway between a synthesizer and an electric guitar. In "Crossing the Horizon" Hwang's articulations become clearer, with what seem to be echoes of Far Eastern music emerging here and there, though quickly dissolved in the inexorable electric cloud. 

In "Shamans of Light" sounds like an overloaded church organ that are joined by the electric spasms of an alien violin. More rarefied, and at times dreamlike, is the atmosphere of "Speaking in Tongues," with several layers of violin intertwining. The initial pings of the violin in the extensive title piece, the nerve center of the album, trigger synapses that lead to sonic landscapes of different configurations, planar or rustic, always deeply visual. At a certain point, the violin appears clearer (albeit processed), drawing a distant melody, resting on an incandescent electronic base that is slowly extinguished. 

"Uncharted Faith" is a kaleidoscopic and intelligent work, which demands patience and an open mind to be fully unveiled.