Jason Kao Hwang & Edge – Crossroads Unseen
by Doug Simpson
October 20, 2011
For most listeners, jazz violin fits into two camps: Stéphane Grappelli’s swinging traditionalism or Jean-Luc Ponty’s crossover fusion. Fortunately there are exceptions to both, exemplified by Billy Bang, Carla Kihlstedt (of Tin Hat Trio fame) and Jason Kao Hwang, who came to prominence in the 1970s as part of New York City’s jazz loft scene. Hwang (who uses both violin and viola) has bridged many genres ranging from jazz, classical and world music while he has worked with open-minded artists such as Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill and Cecil Taylor. Hwang’s forward-thinking quartet, Edge, combines Hwang’s through-composed material with free-jazz inclined improvisation which shifts from avant-garde jazz to intermittent moments of Asian musical forms.
Crossroads Unseen is Hwang’s third outing with Edge, a foursome which also includes Taylor Ho Bynum (on cornet and Flugelhorn), drummer Andrew Drury and bassist Ken Filiano; this follow-up sticks to the template laid out on the band’s 2005 self-titled debut and Stories Before Within (2007). Like the two preceding releases, this five-track, 54-minute excursion is a venture through jazz’s progressive side with fluctuating changes in tone, sound and tempo which is genuinely exploratory but not necessarily undemanding. Hwang’s compositions are designed for those who want to avoid predictability, sidestep the norm and are stimulated by unconventional music.
The 11-minute title track is both eerie and engrossing, in an off-beat way. Bynum’s cornet shivers with strange wails, bellows and unearthly noises, like something heard but not seen in an arcane dark cavern. Hwang’s resonating strings provide a stormy counterpoint with agitated fretwork, finger plucks and bowing, sometimes approaching Krzysztof Penderecki’s acerbic, world-scarred aesthetic. Drury’s pensive percussion adds to the mordant coloring with cymbal washes, cresting snares and toms, and other percussive elements. However, the cut which truly twists and turns is “The Path Around the House,” which is nervous and skittish at times, charged with foreboding and anxiety at other moments, but just as suddenly can flash with swing, familiarity and even instances of tenderness. The vacillating streaks of starkness and swing—highlighted by the high-speed rhythm section and Bynum’s horn—can be a difficult journey to traverse but that’s also the point: this is not easily digestible music.
Hwang brings his imagination and technical facility to his skewed ballad, “Transients.” During the unstable arrangement, Hwang bows, fingers and even breaths onto his instrument. Bynum’s drums have an equally tenuous feel as he moves from rolling tom to tinkling hi-hat. Hwang’s cerebral solo holds nothing back as he adjusts from emotive fragility to dissonant impulses. There are fleeting touches of bluesy jazz, particularly when Bynum solos, but conventions usually get lost among the fragmented commotion.
On Crossroads Unseen each of the five tracks possesses abundant awareness that some music can create its own context and viewpoint. This is involved composition, where incessant freedom leads to unforeseen intersections of jazz, avant-garde and modern 21st century music. There is tension, drama, release and conviction, done with seriousness which needs and demands persistent concentration.
- Doug Simpson, Audiophile Audition, October 25, 2011