Jason Kao Hwang's Critical Response: Book of Stories 

by Ron Schepper, textura.com

Read at textura.com


In liner notes for Book of Stories, Scott Currie associates Jason Kao Hwang's Critical Response, the violinist's trio with electric guitarist Anders Nilsson and drummer Michael T. A. Thompson, with fusion, a loaded term if there ever was one. For some, the label calls to mind the glory days of Bitches Brew, Birds of Fire, Mysterious Traveler, and other classics of the jazz-rock period; for others, the word recalls a genre less fondly remembered for overblown virtuosic displays and excessive compositional complexity. The fifty-two-minute Book of Stories suggests that a rather different fusion, specifically prog-rock, might better apply to what the trio's doing, especially when moments in the opening track, “The Power of Many in the Soul of One,” invite comparison to Lark's Tongue-era King Crimson.

Don't get the wrong idea: Hwang, Nilsson, and Thompson don't mimic Fripp, Cross, and Bruford, but there's no ignoring the similarity between their respective musics. Also mixed into the Critical Response melting pot is the time Hwang spent living in NYC's East Village during the '80s and delving into its avant-jazz scene. In the final analysis, Currie's correct to propose that fusion, if one chooses to use the word, merits reconceptualization when applied to what the trio's doing. In fact, it might be best to set the label aside and simply focus on the mix of improv, composition, and Eastern and Western forms featured in the album's five explorative tracks.

Certainly all three bring a lot to the table: Hwang's built his career on exploration, particularly in the many different ensembles he's presented, among them the quartet EDGE and the improvising string orchestra Spontaneous River; like Hwang, Nilsson's played in a number of group contexts and with a diverse range of artists, and the same applies to Thompson, who's performed with figures such as Oliver Lake, Matthew Shipp, John Patitucci, William Parker, and more. For whatever reason, Hwang's opted to have the group, established in 2018, bass-less, but, no fronting here, I'd prefer to hear one included: yes, its inclusion would decrease the amount of space the trio inhabits; the addition would also, however, give the group's sound a greater bottom-end. Regardless, Critical Response derives a significant part of its identity from Hwang's electric violin, whose arresting sound conjures Jerry Goodman from the first Mahavishnu Orchestra.

The trio gets up to some serious wail in “The Power of Many in the Soul of One,” the freewheeling sensibility of the group apparent from the first moment. With Hwang bowing wildly against a locked-in groove, the music swells in power until Nilsson steps up with a turn that's alternately snarling and molten. Animating the trio with muscularity, Thompson drops bombs behind the two until his own solo moment arrives. Midway through, the fourteen-minute tracks grows Crimson-oid with stabbing chords and a tumultuous foray before resolving peacefully. Guiding structures are in place, but this long-form exploration shows that Critical Response is an outfit well-groomed for improvisation. Rambunctiousness characterizes “Upside Circle Down,” the barely containable energy of its intro perhaps meant to evoke the excitement of the NYC downtown scene of the ‘80s. With his violin floating like a ghost, Hwang remembers that time with blues-tinged affection and delivers one of the album's most expressive solos. Speaking of which, “a silent ghost follows” embraces an even more contemplative tone as it advances patiently through texturally focused solo, duo, and trio passages.

If any tune suggests some trace of jazz fusion exists in its DNA, it's “Dragon Carved into Bone” for an attack so furious and turbulent it rivals Last Exit. Funky flavours emerge too in Thompson's imaginative flourishes, Nilsson's raw chords, and Hwang's wah-wah, and the material even manages to work blues and soul into its itinerary. With the leader and guitarist emoting open-heartedly, the closing ballad “Friends Forever” honours the memory of two members of Hwang's first band, the collective quartet Commitment, but Book of Stories is no exercise in nostalgia. Without denying the influence of earlier times, the members of Critical Response are fully engaged in what's happening now and primed for whatever's on the horizon.

October 2023