Ayman Fanous/ Jason Kao Hwang
by Robert Tiannapollo
Cadence Magazine, July/August, 2014
Violinist Jason Kao Hwang was among the first Asian-Americans to add his experiences and musical vision to the vanguard jazz scene. Emerging from the loft scene in the late 1970’s, he has made strides as both an instrumentalist (on violin and viola) and as a composer. While he has made his individual stamp through countless albums, he has always been a ready collaborator with others’ visions. The early 80’s group Commitment was among the first to mix Asian-Americans (Hwang and drummer Zen Matsuura) with African-Americans (reed player Will Connell and bassist William Parker). His 90’s group The Far East Side Band with Korean kayagum virtuoso Sang-Won Park, American tubist Joe Daley and Japanese percussionist Yukio Tsuji created a unique improvised music during that decade. Hwang has always seemed to be a willing collaborator in anomalous situations.
Not as well-known but an equally intrepid player, guitar/bouzouki player Ayman Fanous was born in Cairo but moved to the U.S. at the age of five. He started on violin, switching to guitar at age 12, and eventually added the bouzouki to his arsenal. His playing mixes a Middle-Eastern flavor into a very modern approach to improvising. He’s played in duet situations with Bern Nix, William Parker, Ned Rothenberg and Tomas Ulrich. It was through Ulrich (with whom he recorded Labyrinths (2007) that Fanous met Hwang and they immediately clicked. They shared a love of the sound and texture in string combinations and they also shared a common bond in free improvisation. And the way both draw on their respective cultures informs the music with a unique quality.
From the opening moments of this disc, one can tell this is something special. The resonant tones of Fanous bouzouki ring out and over it, Hwang etches a baleful melody on viola with a rich, burnished tone. Listen to them slowly evolve on “Nilometer At Roda” is a study in how musicians listen and respond. And that is the case throughout this disc. Both players have lightning quick reflexes. And neither musician is tied to improvising melodies. Abstraction is the order of the day on three “DNA” tracks: pizzicato strings from Hwang and harmonics from Fanous predominate. While there’s no melody per se, it creates an environment in which the listener can get lost. The album wends its way through 63 minutes without a lull in the proceedings. Each track has something of merit and taken as a whole, this is one of the finest duet recordings I’ve heard in recent memory.