Jason Kao Hwang/Burning Bridge: Blood
by Ron Schepper, Feb., 2019
Where else than a Jason Kao Hwang recording would you encounter a furious throwdown between erhu, pipa, trombone, and violin? However unusual the soundworld might appear, it's business as usual for Hwang, whose eight-member Burning Bridge (in operation since 2009) tears into Blood's five parts like rabid dogs. His account of the project's origins helps explain why the music seethes with such intensity: after almost colliding with a bloodied deer while driving on an unlit road, he flashed back to a World War II experience of his mother's where a pharmacy she was in was destroyed by a Japanese bomb, leaving her unconscious and everyone around her dead. Blood grew out of the recognition that emotional traumas reverberate long after the originating incident and presents Hwang's attempt to transpose deeply held memories into sound form, implicit in the process the hope that a catharsis of some kind might be achieved.
Formally speaking, Blood isn't an unscripted free jazz recording but rather an uncompromising, five-act creation comprised of twenty-eight scenes. Still, however through-composed it is, the set plays like an emergent force of nature with a will of its own. Much of the credit for its impact is attributable to the personnel involved, with the violin-toting leader joined by Taylor Ho Bynum (cornet, flugelhorn), Steve Swell (trombone), Joseph Daley (tuba), Wang Guowei (erhu), Sun Li (pipa), Ken Filiano (string bass), and Andrew Drury (drums).
It's tempting to interpret the music's events programmatically, especially when the background content for it is so powerful; it's also possible, however, to experience the collection purely as instrumental performances with that extra-musical dimension stripped out. Certainly a programmatic quality suggests itself when a low-pitched drum rumble initiates “Breath Within the Bomb,” but quickly enough such associations fall to the wayside, the focus shifting instead to the interplay of the players. Solo, duo, and trio episodes arise over the course of the ever-winding, twelve-minute trajectory, with horns and strings engaged in impassioned cross-cultural dialogues. At one moment, trio interactions between cornet, tuba, and erhu dominate, while at another the ensemble voices a mournful Hwang theme that Bynum and Swell punctuate.
“Surge, Part 1” sees the group digging into a processional-styled blues whose slowed tempo allows the listener a better chance to monitor the interactions, after which the track's second part dispenses with regulated rhythm for explorative sub-group passages, pipa and drums, for example, followed by trombone, erhu, and bass. The bluesy feel reasserts itself in the fourth track, “Evolution,” where a relaxed shuffle provides a springboard for breezy extemporizations by Swell, Hwang, and Guowei; one of the album's most memorable moments arises during the closing minutes when the players trade brief solo statements before uniting for a spirited outro. At album's end, the comparatively subdued “Declarations” engenders resolution via closing individual and ensemble statements, all of which seem to express hope for peace and advancement.
Throughout this fifty-minute recording (which plays without interruption, its five index markings and track titles notwithstanding), Hwang draws on the liberating spirit of free jazz whilst also grounding the performances in defined structures. Improvisation is woven into the pieces circumspectly, though the fervour with which the musicians perform can distract the attention away from the notated content to the soloist. Each musician's engaged as both ensemble player and improviser, the leader intent on ensuring all eight voices are well-accounted for on the project. Though Hwang's music stakes out its own territory within the jazz firmament, Blood exudes a spirit and sensibility not wholly different from the material Tim Berne's released, even if the instrumentation associated with the artists doesn't wholly overlap. Given the evidence at hand, the two would appear be kindred spirits of a kind, which suggests that some future collaboration would seem a natural step.
Read at Textura