Crossroads Unseen and Symphony of Souls
By Robert Iannapollo
The New York City Jazz Record
November 11, 2011
It’s difficult keeping violinist Jason Kao Hwang’s career in perspective. He recently came in second place in one magazine’s poll as “rising star on the violin”. Amazing place to be for a musician who has been making challenging music since the early 80’s. The recent archival release of the music of Commitment (a band he had with Will Connell, William Parker and Zen Matsuura) made between 1981-83 was on many ten best lists last year. Hwang’s multi-cultural Far East Side Band was one of the bright spots of the 90’s. In recent years, Hwang has led his quartet Edge and been working on larger-scale pieces for a 10-piece ensemble integrating Eastern and Western instruments (Burning Bridge) and a string orchestra (Spontaneous River). Hwang is more than a mere rising star on his instrument and making his mark as a composer as well.
Edge (with cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Andrew Drury) has been Hwang’s primary group since he disbanded the Far East Side Band. They’re now three albums old and one of the most creative and unique bands operating in improvised music today. Opening with the rousing “Elemental Determination”, they maneuver through various landmines and tempo shifts of the composition with ease. Drury, an underrated drummer, is impressive when, after a vigorous solo by Hwang, he effortlessly slips into a rhythm that totally changes the character of the music for Bynum’s subsequent solo. The entire album continues in this vein, with Hwang’s compositions morphing in unexpected ways. Bynum and Hwang play off each other well with the Filiano/Drury rhythm team capable of generating as much interest as the frontline. Crossroads Unseen sounds like a mature band at the peak of their powers and is the strongest Edge release yet.
Symphony of Souls focuses on Hwang the composer. A work that has been in gestation for several years, Hwang assembled a group of 38 string players, including violin, viola, guitar, cello and bass, who were comfortable both interpreting scores and improvising. Hwang himself plays the opening and closing statements solo, which frees him to conduct the rest of the piece. His role includes both conducting and conduction and it’s a measure of the skill of these musicians as well as Hwang’s organizing principles that they carry off the work with aplomb.
The work itself is a sprawling 60-minute 11-movement piece that explores the string orchestra in minute detail. Writing for strings would seem to be natural for Hwang and it’s clear he’s in his element, subdividing the violins, matching guitars with cellos, passing melody lines deftly throughout the orchestra. Drury, the lone non-string instrument, shows what a valuable asset he is once again, driving the group during rhythmic sections and subtly coloring the ensemble during the quieter moments. Hwang’s work in handling this ensemble makes one look forward to future large-scale works from him.
- Robert Iannapollo, The New York City Jazz Record, November 11, 2011