Jason Kao Hwang/Critical Response Trio, "Book of Stories" (True Sound Recordings, 2023)
by Gian Paolo Galasi
July 25, 2023
It is almost a commonplace the fact that “fusion”, born in the middle of the 1960s, burned itself after a fist and beginning incredible, creative season leaving the most adventurous listeners dry and thirsty becoming a catchy and more pop-rock oriented (i.e.: simplified) style of music.
In fact, after the fist creative outputs by the like of Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock as On The Corner and Sextant, after incredibly skilled musicians such as Jaco Pastorius, after creating a music that mixed the principles of improvisation with instruments coming from all over the world like Trilok Gurtu’s tablas and tampouras, “fusion” became a label for sometimes easy to create and to play music, sometimes cerebral and unproductive experimentations.
The same thing happened with post-rock at the end of 1990s, with band such as Tortoise giving originally life to a music that was funk but also hardcore punk – at least in spirit – but that degraded in few years into a mere juxtaposition of different elements in order to find out the most rare approach to various notes, instruments and styles of music.
A complete different path, reminiscent of the famous Loft Era we talked about in the past, is that of a leader of those faraway days, violinist Jason Kao Hwang. While for more info on him we recommend another review of one of his last year works, one of the most important issued in these times, this new album titled Book Of Stories (True Sound Recordings, 2023) is played by the Critical Response Trio.
The trio features Hwang at electric violin, Anders Nilsson at electric guitar and Michael T.A. Thompson at drums. The music is flavored with funk and reggae hints and spices here and there, but the compositions, all by Hwang, are anyway adventurous enough to be interesting for all fans of improvised music, even non idiomatic, because the most recognizable parts are in a way ‘abstracted’ and conducted into climaxes or moments of rest that are fully dynamics and that can bring the listener a lot of fun, being a mix of the ‘mental’ approach of spontaneous improvised music and the more enjoyable characteristics of popular music without being ‘populistic’.
This way, compared with the previous Hwang release in duo with J.A. Deane, the album offers the listener another face of the instrumentalist and composer way of understanding and exercise creativity, likewise interesting and daring. Powered by the experience of the musicians involved (Anders Nilssen played guitar with William Parker, Paquito D’Rivera, Elliott Sharp and Ken Filiano among the many others, while Michael T.A. Thompson was a solid drummer for musicians such as Charles Gayle, Joe McPhee, Matthew Shipp, Henry Grimes and John Patitucci), the record is solid enough to make you want to listen to it more than once.
The album opens with The Power of Many in the Soul of One. Violin phrases, and subsequent silences, are interspersed with rhythmic outbursts while the guitar arpeggios embellish Hwang phrases. A sense of urgency and, together with it, a meditative quality, are mixing together in what seem to be an attempt to create a dramatic peak that abruptly diminishes into a more introspective, even if electrical, interaction.
A pedal change atmosphere leaving then space to a beautiful drum solo, after which electric guitar explodes in different rhythmic approaces on an atonal basis. After the guitar express itself in full, it’s time for the effected violin to recall all the musicians involved into a more meditative mood, played almost until the end of the track. Many nuances and the overall approach makes you think about the Loft Era music, but played through a more contemporary vision.
Music continues with Upside Circle Down, and more than of the Lofts it it reminiscent of the first AACM experiments – I’m thinking in particular to the first releases in the 1970s by Anthony Braxton with Dave Holland on cello or Kenny Wheeler on fluegelhorn. Brief assertions are interspersed with silence, inviting people to listen to the music and themselves more carefully, but the drums’ almost funky groove creates a first difference, almost a new idea of “fusion”, and a recontextualization of experimental music from the end of the 1960s.
Guitar arpeggios create a magical atmosphere, as you can listen through works such different but with a similar emotional approach as In A Silent Way by Miles Davis and Andrew Cyrille’s Lebroba – notably with two pairly sensitive guitarists as Nilssen like John McLaughlin and Bill Frisell. A Silent Ghost Follows is a slightly shorter composition introduced by the colors of mallets and a contemporary claim by the violin, making us remember Anthony Braxton again or the AEoC.
This time the use of different pitches – the violin looks for very high notes, the guitar opens up to middle tones – captures the listener, again carried in a past era still harbinger of stimuli for the future – the violin creates almost modern electronic textures into the solid structure we depicted. Dragon Carved into Bone takes the same matter on another temperature, with violin soloing on higher pitches and drums depicting a more bustling sonorous landscape, while the guitar gently deconstructs a melody into parts and pieces so to rebuild them together in another, interesting shape.
More quiet parts are alternating with denser structures, while drums nod to some reggae/dub or blues rhythms. Last piece, Friends Forever, is an hommage to the musicians that in the past gave shape to the music here present, through ages and through all the difficulties that didn’t prevented anyway many of them from creating beauty. The piece is the most melodical of the lotto, even if doesn’t lack the blues scrape but also the sweetness typical of the genre.
Living on the other side of the ocean, I’m not completely aware of what Hwang and friends future steps will be. For the moment, enjoying this music is an unexpected gift that deserves to be shared with fans of improvisation. The album has been released on June 30 this year and is available also through the artist Bandcamp page.