Crossroads Unseen is violinist Jason Kao Hwang's third release with his all-star ensemble, EDGE, following Stories Before Within (Innova, 2007) and its 2006 self-titled debut (Asian Improv). Exploring uncharted territory between chamber music, jazz improvisation and traditional East Asian forms, EDGE boasts some of New York City's finest improvisers, including stalwart contrabassist Ken Filiano, rising cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum and undersung percussionist Andrew Drury.
For many Asian-American artists, incorporating traditions from cultures outside the Afro-European Diaspora has become one of creative improvised music's most pertinent challenges. Accommodating Pan-Asian micro-tonality, untempered scales and non-metered rhythms has intrigued jazz improvisers since the heyday of the New Thing; as a child of first generation Chinese immigrants, Hwang incorporates these tenets better than most. His ability to seamlessly assimilate Chinese, Korean and Japanese folk forms into advanced jazz structures has yielded striking results; his continued efforts with this line-up are among the most compelling in his discography. An ingenious composer and a fearless improviser, his forward-thinking aesthetic establishes him as part of a lineage of vanguard violinists that includes such luminaries as Elena Poletti & Band and Leroy Jenkins.
One of the most persuasive features of Hwang's intricate writing is his clever balance between the exotic and the conventional; though pentatonic Asian melodies underscore key aspects of the album's five extended compositions, familiar jazz traits like deconstructed blues progressions and polyrhythmic swing form the primary basis of their malleable foundations. The cumulative result of this fusion is multi-sectional pieces whose unorthodox narrative flow is dictated by unique melodic contours rather than standardized patterns.
The ebullient opener, "Elemental Determination" embodies this aesthetic wholeheartedly, as Hwang's soaring cadences inspire a series of spirited solos from the band, with Drury's climactic salvos demonstrating a talent deserving wider recognition. Instigated by the leader's feverish fretwork and fueled by Filiano's throbbing ostinato, Bynum's coiled brass ruminations highlight the capriciously episodic "The Path Around the House," which vacillates wildly between regal austerity and blistering swing. Hwang and Filiano's sinewy verve infuses "Transients" with bluesy lyricism and the title track with an air of stately introspection; the latter's brooding neo-classicism is further accentuated by Bynum and Drury's ghostly ceremonial accents. The bracingly tortuous finale, "One Day," encapsulates each of the date's primary stylistic themes, alternating between exuberant group interplay, mercurial tempo shifts and chamber-esque soliloquies.
Striking a delicate balance between freedom and form, Eastern and Western tonalities and dynamic shifts in mood, Crossroads Unseen offers a telling appraisal of Hwang's talent for deftly transcending cultural divisionsone that places him at the creative forefront of his peers.
Elemental Determination; The Path Around the House; Transients; Crossroads Unseen; One Day.
Jason Kao Hwang: composer, violin, viola; Taylor Ho Bynum: cornet, flugelhorn; Andrew Drury: percussion; Ken Filiano: string bass.