No instruments havern greater dramatic possibilities than the bowed strings. Violinist Jason Kao Hwang knows this well, and he exploits it: Everything from the compositions torn the Edge quartet's lineup on Stories Before Within is designed to maximize the drama within every performance. It works-the album is as taut and thrilling as a Hitchcock film.
Crucially, Hwang is not Edge's only arco player; bassist Ken Filiano brandishes the bow sporadically on each of Stories' five tracks. Actually, though cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum is Hwang's frontline partner, Filiano is arguably the more important player. This is partly because of the instruments' relationship, their collision of upper and lower registers full of tension, but also because Filiano and Hwang are simply the most creative musicians in the band. In the opening "Cloudrn Call," violin and bass weave oppositional, rhythmically complex melodies, and Bynum (together with Andrew Drury's ride cymbal) ends up keeping the pulse behind them.
But Bynum shouldn't be discounted. He sounds terrific, particularly his muted work on "Walkingrn Pictures"; in one of the disc's most suspenseful moments, Hwang climbs torn a high drone (Filiano accenting him an octave below)-out of which slowly emerges the cornet, playing an atmospheric melody filled with space and changing moods that the string players both follow in wandering pizzicato. Drury, too, is vital. Bearing most of the rhythm section's weight, he nonetheless manages to be adventurous, inserting bright polyphonic splashes on "Walking Pictures" and spidery cymbal fills on "Embers."
Yet Hwang retains the helm, always ready with cliff-hanging tendrils of sound. His command, however, owes as much to composing as to playing. "From East Sixth Street" is a mélange of several different 4/4 grooves, superimposed on top of each other such that there are rhythmic surprises every few bars. "Third Sight," the multipart centerpiece of the album, is Asian American jazz, but could just as easily be rock, funk, or Jewish-roots music like that of John Zorn. More impressive, Hwang gives the piece a theatrical structure that is both jarring and completely logical and unified. Each musician even gets a meaty solo.
On Stories Before Within, musicians, compositions, and everything else intersect in extraordinary synergy. It's a rare occurrence, and even rarer in music as exploratory as Jason Kao Hwang's. The violinist blends the boldness of Downtown cutting-edge and the finesse-and, yes, drama-of classical string quartets into riveting, 21st-century jazz par excellence.
- Michael J. West, Jazz Review, November 30, 2007