This through-composed epic piece is chamber music with a strong conceptual core. The improvisational content is balanced with pre-composed material and the expressive, timbral and textural palette is a rich one as Blood tells the tale of war via sonic objective correlatives, juxtaposing western and eastern instruments and their idiomatic colors in a rich tapestry.
The composition is conceived in 28 scenes divided into five acts, continuously played by Jason Kao Hwang, violin; Wang Guowei, erhu; Sun Li, pipa; Taylor Ho Bynum, cornet and flugelhorn; Steve Swell, trombone; Joseph Daley, tuba; Andrew Drury, percussion; Ken Filiano, string bass.
The first section, "Breath Within the Bomb," is a battlefield, wherein tuba, percussion, string bass, violin, trombone, pipa, cornet and erhu color the air with passionate blasts. This gives way to "Surge Part 1," and "Surge Part 2," both at approximately seven minutes each, expressing some of the intense emotion via the virtuosity of the players, in particular the bowed strings: the European violin and its eastern counterpart, the erhu. The pipa adds some fine non-idiomatic rhythmical and harmonic/melodic passages, as the ensemble builds the intensity, the surge of power. In "Evolution", jazz elements predominate, with a nice sinewy, rich, and historically referential cornet solo by Ho Bynum, a kaleidoscopic rendering of sounds recalling Miles Davis, Rex Stewart, Don Cherry and so many more; and then Swell's trombone saunters in, all over a deep, loose groove of tuba, bass, drums. The last section, "Declaration," along with some very tight ensemble playing, contains a marvelous tuba solo that has both depth and valor — the human spirit, down but not defeated!
The CD's liner notes express the composer's purpose very well. "The compositional stage-sets he conceives," writes Scott Currie, "showcase an activist aesthetic of poly-cultural hybridity, in which uniquely orchestrated sounds combine to evoke overtones of his own Asian American history and location." The notes also tell us that the composer "brings experimental jazz styles into mutually enriching dialogue with traditional Chinese music," a point that is central to the aesthetic of the release and which is satisfyingly achieved. Eastern and western instruments meaningfully converse, although they are half a world away from each other.
What this laudable release shows us is the composer's understanding of the idiomatic material he is working with, his feeling for the universality of music and its expressive possibilities, and the ability of the musicians involved to put their hearts and minds to the task of expressing a holistic, coherent and moving work that highlights harmony amid discord.
- Paul Serralheiro, The Squid’s Ear