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Jason Kao Hwang: Burning Bridge

Karl Ackermann By

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In recent years, avant-garde music has had no more an effective champion than composer/violinist Jason Kao Hwang. With his longstanding quartet EDGE and three additional players, Burning Bridge extends and broadens Hwang's forward-thinking approach to composition and style. Where his brilliant collection, Crossroads Unseen (Euonymus Records, 2011), referenced subdued Asian-influences, Burning Bridge features a somewhat more pronounced cultural touch. Sun Li's pipa—a lute-like Chinese instrument that dates back two millennia—and Wang Guowei's erhu (a Chinese two-stringed violin) add distinctive traditional voices to the jazz and classical elements at work here.

"Ashes, Essence" opens with the harmony between the pipa and Ken Filiano's string bass invoking a far-eastern theme with a dissonant undercurrent. Taylor Ho Bynum's flugelhorn releases a muffled scream, gradually shifting the piece into more decidedly improvised territory. However, this is one of many shifts in the almost 22-minute movement as it also touches on classical and blues-infused jazz themes. Along the way, Bynum has the opportunity for some earthy solo time that nicely compliments Hwang's own bluesy improvisations. Filiano drops the bow long enough to incorporate some deep, woody playing of his own.

On "Worship, Whirling" the music takes on a somber brass band mood in contrast to the delicate precision of the previous piece. As with the opener, the jazzier elements frequently present themselves in a blues motif. Hwang's arrangement executes an effective maneuver in taking a familiar sing-song string pattern and transferring it seamlessly to the brass. With each successive piece a diversity of styles builds the density of the overall work. "Fiery, Far Away" opens festively and provides Bynum (switching to cornet) with a good amount of fast-paced solo time, while "Incense, In Sense" finds the brass section darkening the mood. Middle Eastern influences emerge, only to be restrained by a burst of fanfare and before long the piece falls into a melodically enhanced series of pings, pops and plucks.

In the complexity and richness of these compositions, the sense of how accomplished Hwang—and all these musicians—are as instrumentalists can easily be lost. Burning Bridge is an impressive 78+ minutes, with each of its five movements clocking in at double-digit length. Hwang describes this commissioned work's title as a proxy for breaking with conventional constructs but, like a chemical reaction, every breakdown forms a new structure—a new bridge. The outcome on Burning Bridge is a unique form of musical communication that is expansive and ambitious in scope. Burning Bridge is both a transcendent and challenging experience, and with repeated listening the characteristics of each movement can shift in emphasis, and become reinvented.

Track Listing: Ashes, Essence; Worship, Whirling; Fiery, Far Away; Incense, In Sense; Ocean, O Sun.

Personnel: Jason Kao Hwang: composer, violin; Taylor Ho Bynum: cornet, flugelhorn; Joseph Daley: tuba; Andrew Drury: drum set; Ken Filiano: string bass; Sun Li: pipa; Steve Swell: trombone; Wang Guowei: erhu.

Title: Burning Bridge | Year Released: 2013 | Record Label: Innova Recordings

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