Composer/violinist, Jason Kao Hwang has been firmly establishing his credentials in free jazz since his quartet, EDGE, released its self-titled debut (Asian Improv, 2006). His résumé includes work with genre luminaries William Parker
, Anthony Braxton
, and Henry Threadgill
. There are inevitable comparisons to Billy Bang
, with whom Hwang has also played, but the two masters typically utilize a different line of development. Crossroads Unseen
features the original EDGE personnel, a stellar line up of free jazz veterans, in outstanding performances of five long, riveting Hwang compositions.
It's clear from the opening "Elemental Determination" that Hwang is not aiming for a straightforward listen. The composition requires leaning into the music for better understanding, but that level of concentration ultimately pays offcomplex in structure, even when not clear if said structure has been left behind. "The Path Around the House" opens with percussionist, Andrew Drury
keeping time, with a pulsing beat created by Hwang plucking the violin strings. A samba rhythm quickly develops and bassist Ken Filiano
picks up that beat in the background as an Asian-influenced sing-song cadence takes over. All of this occurs less than one minute into this twelve-minute piece. If it sounds as if it is a difficult listen, it is, in reality, a thoroughly absorbing journey. Taylor Ho Bynum
plays flugelhorn on the first two tracks, soloing remarkably on each, complimented by Hwang's ability to make his violin mimic a wind instrument. Filiano frequently picks up the bow for impromptu string duets with Hwang, as he does on "Transients," following an excellent solo from Drury. The title track has the feel of a steam locomotive leaving the station and the effect is perfect, seeming to struggle at first, trying to get out from under some unseen weight, but with a tension that anticipates a breakout. Again, Hwang demonstrates that he is not about to make things undemanding, as the flight reverses into a melancholy passage and melodic bass solo. Hwang, now on viola, makes the instrument weep in sympathy with Filiano's bass.
Hwang has the ability to make it feel like the music itself is thinking about the next direction it will take. As an arranger, he goes well beyond a broad canvas, getting paint everywhere, but his vision is never out of focus. Every space is filled with sound and it's no accident that there is an orchestral feel. Hwang is concurrently releasing Symphony of Souls
(Mulatta Records, 2011), with a 38-piece string orchestra, but the large sound receptivity is here as well. Drury turns the drum kit into a creative workshop, both nuanced and forceful, and propelling each shifting piece skillfully. Filiano alternates playing pizzicato and bow with the speed and dexterity of two musicians. And, with Hwang and Bynum doubling up on their respective instrumental responsibilities, it's no wonder that the quartet often sounds as full as an octet.
The notion that the next great force in new jazz could be a violinist may seem a bit incongruous, but Crossroads Unseen
is fresh, exciting and creative, and one of the best recordings of the year.