Jason Kao Hwang's Edge is perhaps not for everyone, but the music contained on this CD is intense and emotionally alive. Hwang, as composer of the four pieces presented here and as violinist, is very much in the forefront, but the level of support that he garners from his band here is phenomenal, and why not? They are all phenomenal players in their own right. Taylor Ho Bynum, who plays cornet and flugelhorn, is an unparalleled improviser and has worked with Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, and a variety of his own projects. Percussionist Andrew Drury is a composer and improviser whose work includes collaborations with Wadada Leo Smith and Myra Melford. Ken Filiano is a bassist of amazing scope who has worked with Nels Cline, Eric Von Essen, Dom Minasi, and many more. This band is equipped to play Hwang's work and to keep up with his violin playing as well.
There isn't much here that is all that far "out" to my ears, just simply some really good musicians playing within a framework that they clearly understand well. "No Myth" begins with a violin monologue, which bursts into improvisation with a start. As Filiano and Hwang create a sonic canvas and Drury adds a variety of sounds, Bynum plays solidly improvised lines on cornet. This lasts maybe 45 seconds, maybe a minute, then the thing breaks down again, coming back with tribal drums and some very lovely ensemble playing by Hwang and Bynum. Once Drury begins the steady drumming, he never lets up, and Bynum works his way through a solo that builds nicely until Hwang begins to play a competing repetitive line with plucked strings. Then Filiano gets a turn at a solo, unaccompanied, and it's an aggressive affair, with heavily plucked strings and winding glissandos. The next ensuing ensemble section brings the piece to an unexpected conclusion.
"Threads" evokes tension from the start, until about midway through, when it erupts into a full fledged whirlwind, as Drury's martial drumbeat is underpinned by Filiano's Eastern drone. Hwang creates descending spirals of cornet sound as the piece lurches along towards its conclusion. After a brief introduction, "Parallel Meditations" features another strong Filiano solo, with the bassist bowing furiously against the small, repetitive figure launched by Bynum and Hwang. There are times when this piece has a rhythmic perspective that is all bebop, even though the repetition of ostinato figures lets you know it's a modern composition. Hwang fires off the first solo here, and he is completely in command. Bynum, plays a particularly aggressive flugelhorn solo, attacking his ideas with vigor.
The final piece, "Grassy Hills" has strong melodic elements, with Bynum allowing his brass work to slip and slide from note to note as Hwang lays out the well-defined melody. Drury works with brushes early in the track, offering the soft but brittle snare sound that can only be achieved with brushes. His playing is stunning in its ability to accent certain elements the others are playing.
Edge is excellent free jazz that succeeds in large part because its excellent cast of musicians know how to create an ensemble environment, and how to stay out of each others' way. Hwang benefits from having such an ensemble, but make no mistake—his playing and composing are the focus of this performance and highlight his strengths admirably.