Jason Kao Hwang: Sing House
by Ron Schepper, July, 2017
Sing House is both the title of violinist/violist Jason Kao Hwang's latest release and the name of his latest group project, a mobile five-piece featuring trombonist Steve Swell, pianist Chris Forbes, bassist Ken Filiano, and drummer Andrew Drury. On the release's inner sleeve, the leader articulates what amounts to a manifesto of sorts for the quintet: likening the music to a house whose rooms enable each musician to “extemporaneously sing,” Hwang asserts that “the unique voice of each musician is empowered to individually interpret and transcend interpretation to become an originating spirit that is inextricably unified to the composition's destiny.” Stated otherwise, the album's four compositions are designed with maximum flexibility in mind, such that while formal structures are present and adhered to, the musicians are given ample space for individual expression. The material on Sing House isn't free jazz, but its music is certainly imbued with its free-wheeling spirit.
There's a rapport between the musicians that can be explained, at least in part, by pre-existing associations. Filiano and Drury play with Hwang in three of his other bands, the Burning Bridge octet, VOICE project, and string orchestra Spontaneous River, while Swell is a Burning Bridge member. Further to that, Forbes and Hwang have performed as a duo and with Swell's bands. As a result, Sing House achieves a comfortable balance between the formality of compositional structure and the looseness of improvisational expression. As the album plays, the quintet gives the impression of being a unit featuring members who've become intimately familiar with one another. Each impresses as a strong soloist, too, with Hwang working individual solo spaces into all four of the pieces. The quintet format also allows for greater mobility than, say, a tenet, which could be unwieldy by comparison.
“No Such Thing” inaugurates the album in blustery fashion, with an initial thematic statement directing leading into a freeform explosion of individual energies. Drury's subsequent solo is so dense, it sounds like two drummers and as such, deliberately or not, draws an immediate connecting line from Sing House to Ornette's Free Jazz and its Billy Higgins-and-Ed Blackwell foundation. Having established a powerful first impression, Sing House settles into a relaxed blues-inflected episode, with Swell leading the charge and the others matching his boldness. A reiteration of the theme opens a path for Hwang's first solo, by turns raw, volatile, and lyrical, after which Forbes contributes his own bluesy challenge to convention with audacious splashes of pianistic colour.
Hwang introduces “Dream Walk” with plucked notes, which prompts the others to complement with thoughtful ruminations of their own, Drury suspending straight time for textural free-flow and Forbes following in kind. In one of the album's most captivating sequences, the individual expression by one musician is passed on to another, and so on down the line; only at the five-minute mark does a formal theme arrive but fleetingly as the playing rapidly gives way to raucous, improv-styled flurries. “When What Could” wends episodically through a number of passages, one a memorable march-like section that proves a springboard for some of Hwang's most adventurous soloing. Add in a smattering of funk (as refracted through Sing House's unusual prism, that is), a hint of R&B, and a funereal coda, and what results is a mutating and wildly unpredictable affair.
At a well-considered fifty minutes, the album's four tracks lend themselves ideally to a twelve-inch vinyl presentation; it's not an insignificant point either, as the music itself feels close in spirit to the pre-digital and pre-CD eras when avant-gardists such as Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler were fomenting radical change at loft spaces in downtown NYC. Throughout this strong quintet outing, the participants show themselves to be agile and ever-responsive as they collectively give form to the intricacies of Hwang's compositional structures and thematic material. Read Review Online