Interview of Jason Kao Hwang by Harada Kazunori for Disk Union (Japan), 11/2/20. Read at Disk Union
● Your new album [Human Rights Trio] is so great. How did the album's concept come about? Why do you name the unit Human Rights Trio?
I spell the name as the Human Rites Trio. Rites is a homonym of Rights, and both meanings are combined poetically into the naming of my trio. In music we are creating rituals that affirm our humanity and justice as a right. The word ritual implies ancient traditions, and certainly the struggle against oppression has been ongoing since the dawn of humanity. To draw upon my statement on the CD, “Each ritual, each composition is a progression of gestures, songs, movements and locations that bring participants into a state of discovery and compassion. Within these Human Rites, individual voices are empowered to be fully expressive so that each moment is unpredictable and deeply intentional. This psychic intensity, both sacred and sacrificial, provokes a heightened awareness that unifies Listeners and Musicians within a spiritual entrainment. As we hear ourselves within music we become Music, which is no longer a performance but an affirmation of justice and choice for survival.”
● During listening, like an adventure story to me. Swinging, free-wheeling, taste of funk, churchy.... What is the most focused thing? (Choice of musicians , tune orders, combination of instruments….)
Thanks, because I think of this music as a transformational journey, which can be an adventure! I often think of Vibrations as characters who travel across a sonic landscape and discover changing realizations along the way. Compositionally the landscape is defined by scored passages, with rhythms and textures providing the basis or impetus for spontaneous improvisations. Improvisers may look back as in melodic interpretations or be propelled forward to become an originating source. Often, there is energy generated from both paths at once. Conceptually I think of characters, landscape and sonic narrative for my compositions.
I am always searching for a musical language resonant with my life. Various styles and genres are incorporated into the forms, but ultimately, what’s most important essence is the spirit and soul. Otherwise, stylistic changes will feel like surface manipulations.
● Ken Filiano and Andrew Drury are superb. What is(are) your favorite(s) point about Ken
Filiano and Andrew Drury? I have heard Andrew studied with Ed Blackwell, didn't he?
Ken and Andrew are superb, I’m glad you hear that! They are my best friends and collaborators. They have wide open ears and their imaginations respond to my compositions and playing with knowledge, skill and passion.
Yes, Andrew studied with Ed Blackwell. When Andrew had a concert to honor Mr. Blackwell, his son lent him his father’s drums. It was a very emotional experience for Andrew to play his drums because he had so much love and gratitude for him.
● [Conjure] is duet with Karl Berger. How did the project begin? When did you meet Mr. Berger first? He is one of the survivors of 60's new thing scene. Are you fond of free form jazz in those days?
I think I met Karl around 2012, performing in his Creative Music Orchestra. As a player, composer and educator, Karl, who is in his eighties, is a creative force on all fronts. His music is always evolving forward.
Yes, the music of the 60’s remains inspiring. It was a great era of musical growth with many creative giants on the scene.
● Would you tell us first music are you into? Classical music? When did you discover jazz or improvised music?
I began classical violin training at age 8 in the schools system of Waukegan, Illinois. In high school I discovered violinists Papa John Creach, Jean-Luc Ponty, and Michael Urbaniak. For college I went to New York University in NYC. There my friend Kevin Jordan introduced me to his great collection of Blue Note records. We would go to jazz loft jazz concerts which were abundant with the creativity of so many artists. When I was 19, I discovered Basement Workshop, a now iconic Asian American community arts organization. There, at a jam session, I met Will Connell Jr., a composer/arranger/alto sax/bass clarinet/flute musician who came from the Horace Tapscott scene in LA. Will introduced me to the NYC Jazz loft scene and taught me so much about music and life. I later met William Parker, Leroy Jenkins, Billy Bang, Butch Morris and many others. I know you have my Commitment double-CD, in which the liner notes by Ed Hazell documents this history.
My love of jazz was not only the sound of the music. Especially when I listened to violinists Leroy Jenkins and Billy Bang, I felt there were possibilities in my life that society had programmed me not to even consider. Music helps me understand who I am and how I can serve others. Music helps us evolve into better people.
●When you were a NYU student, want to be a film director? What is (are) your favorite(s) film director or movie? How did seize an opportunity to be a professional musician?
When I was 18 I didn’t have a clear professional goal. But I did know that I needed to create to survive.
Initially I was interested in the cinematic avant-garde, admiring artists like Tom Palazzola, Stan Brakhage, Michael Snow, Maya Deren and others.
My first jazz experience was in the collective band, Commitment, which featured, Will Connell Jr., Zen Matsuura, William Parker and myself. Our friendship and mutual vision changed my life.
● Would you tell some anecdotes about classic masterpieces? Henry Threadgill[Too Much Sugar for a Dime], Billy Bang[Outline No.12], Butch Morris[Dust to Dust]
Henry has a clear vision for his music. His supreme confidence projects into the band, raising our spirits. Sometimes he leads through words, but just as often through his horn. When we had a good take, he’s ready to move on. On one track, I can’t remember which, the band convinced him to do one more take, and he killed on it! I’m very happy that Henry is receiving a lot of recognition and honors now.
Billy Bang was a deep original. His playing always had spark within surprising and magical twists and turns. We recorded Outline No. 12 at Martin Bisi’s studio in Brooklyn. We were all in the main space with none of the studio isolation booths typically employed for a large ensemble. I think this enhanced our ensemble chemistry. In addition to Billy’s brilliance, I remember stellar moments from Khan Jamal on vibes. Billy, whether as a high school star athlete, a military officer in Vietnam, or on the bandstand, was a true leader. He knew how to bring people together and create. He radiated a charisma that people would follow.
● I heard your playing [Commitment] LP first. Did you write this wonderful liner notes? Released on Flying Panda records, is this company still working? I saw [Flying Panda Music] credit on The Far East Side Band CD on Victo.
Ed Hazell wrote the liner notes to Commitment. He’s a wonderful writer and great human being who has been dedicated to the creative music scene for many many years. Flying Panda was the name of my record company when Commitment was originally released. I continued to use the name Flying Panda on subsequent recordings. Now I call my company True Sound Recordings.
● [Commitment] was recorded in 1980. At that time, fusion music was so popular. Have you get involved it?
I played in a fusion jazz/rock band led by a great singer, Fonda Rae. She didn’t write music but could remember complex arrangements of her songs all in her head. I spent hours transcribing my part as she sang them to me She could sing every part in the band! We had a few gigs before the band broke up for some reason that I can’t remember.
I also played in some early editions of Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society, a different kind of fusion coming out of his experience in Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time, which was controversial. Under the influence of older musicians, I left the Decoding Society. Too bad I didn’t have the awareness of mind to stay because Ronald was a great musician.
Ornette was trying to start a movement. He invited me to his loft and we talked. He was trying to organize young musicians into bands that were variations of Prime Time. Of the younger musicians, I only knew of Alfonso Tims who went with it. Ornette had a plan to change the nature of popular music. Ronald Shannong Jackson and Blood Ulmer were the mature exponents of his movement
● The late Zen Matsuura, the brilliant drummer, unfortunately I never met him. What kind of person was he?
Takeshi Zen Matsuura had heart full of kindness and was a superb musician. Zen lived down the block from me on East 6th Street, between 1st and 2nd Ave.
● Michael C. Heller wrote about you at the book[Loft Jazz], you began promoting your own concerts through flyers. what kind of concert? the place like Studio Rivbea, Studio Wee?
I didn’t know about Michael’s book! Michael worked for the Vision Festival for many years before returning to school for his doctorate. Yes, Commitment played wherever we could – lofts, coffee houses, storefronts and galleries. Our first gig was at The Ladies Fort, a loft run by the singer Joe Lee Wilson. It was just a few feet away from Sam Rivers’s Studio Rivbea on Bond Street. I met Butch Morris at that gig and he began calling me to play in his early conductions. Promotion in those days musicians meant grabing a bucket of wheat paste and slapping flyers on lamp posts all over the East Village. We would also leave flyers at galleries and post them on bulletin boards in restaurants and book stores. We also had a small mailing list too, but postage was expensive. No e-mail back then!
● I enjoyed your playing at Vision Festival maybe 7 or 8 times. To you, what is Vision Festival? Would you tell us friendship with William Parker?
Thank you for listening! William is a beacon of creativity for so many of us. Playing in his different projects has always been inspiring. His music is so good, always has infused with the pulse of life. William and Patricia are also presenters, not just of the Vision Festival, but smaller concert series in various spaces. They have given me many opportunities to develop my music. I can say that without the Parker’s friendship I would not be creating music now. I am grateful to know them. There are many many musicians who will say the same. We love them! The Vision Festival has hosted a huge variety of musicians, each with their own way of creating.
● You are versatile. And you lead many projects at the same time. So busy, What is your source of flexibility?
Thank you. I try to stay in the moment and be fully committed to what’s in front of me. If I can, I avoid multi-tasking. I know I need all my energy to doing any one thing well. So one project at a time.
● What is the most important thing to you playing and composing?
Years ago, my wife and I went to a yoga retreat and participated in a laughing meditation, which was basically around 30 people laughing non-stop for forty minutes. As I listened, I could hear each person’s unique, inimitable laugh. Everyone’s original laughter was powerful, emotional and expressed without compromise. This was music! Whether I’m playing or composing, I wish to create music with the deep honesty and joy of laughter.
● Would you tell us your future project?
Before the pandemic, I was composing work for my quintet Sing House (Andrew Drury -drum set, Ken Filiano – string bass, Chris Forbes – piano, and Kalun Leung – trombone, myself – violin/viola) and another trio, Critical Response (Anders Nilsson – electric guitar, Michael T.A. Thompson – drums set, myself – electric violin/effects). I had hoped to record both groups within the year. But that’s not possible now.
Because of the pandemic, our lives have been altered in ways we can’t comprehend. The human exchanges that might have impacted our lives, will not be taking place.
The music too has changed. Live concerts, where music is tested and grown, are no more. Studios, which are generally small spaces where viruses can suspend in the air for a long time, will be shunned. So the means of music will change. Of course there will be brilliant artists creating great music via overdubbing tracks. But know that jazz as a music created through live, spontaneous interactions, like my Human Rites Trio, will not be happening.
These past months I’ve been in deep practice and study. I’m planning to create a large work for strings. I will be overdubbing myself to build the sonic mass that I’m hearing.