Jason Kao Hwang/Sing House

by Troy Dostert, All About Jazz, June 11/2017

Violinist/violist and composer Jason Kao Hwang has explored the intersections of avant-garde jazz and classical music for some time, and his commitment to drawing inspiration from the well of Asian musical idioms gives his pieces much of their distinctive character. Here he's working once again with bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Andrew Drury, longstanding partners from his EDGE ensemble and Burning Bridge group, and trombonist Steve Swell, who's also played and recorded with Burning Bridge. Rounding out the band is the relative newcomer, pianist Chris Forbes. Together the five players skillfully handle Hwang's tricky compositions while also taking advantage of the numerous opportunities they're afforded to stretch out and give voice to their individual expressions. Hwang's music provides just the right balance between structure and freedom, as illustrated vividly on these four well-crafted tracks.  

From the first bars of the formidably complex theme of "No Such Thing," the group moves in sync, with a vigorous charge of acceleration and energy before a brief drum solo from Drury leads into an even-tempered groove for solos from Swell, Hwang and Forbes, followed by an unaccompanied solo turn from Filiano. Hwang's leaps and flights are especially impressive, showcasing his superb dexterity while the band surges powerfully behind him. The second piece, "Dream Walk," introduced by Hwang's plucked notes, possesses an air of mystery and wonder, with Filiano's arco playing helping to establish the mood. One can hear a bit of Asian-themed influence in the melody of the piece, especially in the meditative first segment, before things take a dramatic turn and Hwang launches the group into a harrowing explosive burst that is one of the most gripping moments on the record. The dream becomes a nightmare of sorts—but eventually we return to the becalmed spirit of the start of the track, where the gentler side of Hwang's playing (combined with a terrific arco statement from Filiano) ushers the piece out in a spirit of reserved tranquility.  

"When What Could" offers more of Hwang's intriguing compositional approach, with another minor-key, dreamlike opening eventually transitioning into a noir-ish groove generated by Forbes and Filiano, providing plenty of room for individual musings from each of the players, this time with Hwang on viola and Swell strutting marvelously during an especially jaunty solo. Like "Dream Walk," this piece too closes with a somber feel, as another terrific unaccompanied solo from Filiano (joined eventually by Forbes) allows the band to again alter the mood into something reminiscent of a stately funeral march. "Inscribe" finishes out the record with another cleverly-built labyrinth of composed and free sections, unison themes alternating with open-ended moments of barely-controlled chaos.  

Much of the music turns on the rhythmic foundation provided by Filiano and Drury. They possess the finely-honed instincts of having played together for years, and the complexity of Hwang's compositions requires those instincts to be fully utilized. This is challenging music, and it requires a bassist and drummer who can guide the music in the face of its many twists and turns. Filiano and Drury fit the bill perfectly. But to be sure, all five musicians work as an integrated unit, and that ultimately is the reason why the album succeeds.  

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Track Listing: No Such Thing; Dream Walk; When What Could; Inscribe. 
Personnel: Jason Kao Hwang: violin, viola; Andrew Drury: drums; Ken Filiano: bass; Chris Forbes: piano; Steve Swell: trombone. 
Title: Sing House | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: Euonymus Records