Jason Kao Hwang, a violinist and composer, has played with the cream of the out-jazz crop—Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, and William Parker, among others. He was also in the original cast of Broadway’s ambitious M. Butterfly, where he performed music he arranged for the production and served as music director for the national touring company. His credits also include plenty of “new” and “world” music, which is to say that he has extensively experimented with various forms of Asian American music, notated and improvised. Appropriately, the recording by his new quartet is on Asian Improv Records.
Edge, however, is a relatively World Music-free statement sitting strongly in the middle of the tradition begun by Ornette Coleman’s classic quartet and continued on through today’s downtown NY scene. An album of four abstract compositions that use harmony but allow atonal improvised solo statements as part of the plan, Edge is a bid for serious jazz recognition. My ears are fully perked up.
The Edge quartet consists of Mr. Hwang’s violin, Andrew Drury on drums, Ken Filiano on bass, and Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet. Mr. Hwang gets a vast array of colors and sound out of this limited instrumentation, often employing Mr. Bynum as a low colorist in the ensemble, and using the rhythm section to create larger walls of sound than is typical in more straight-ahead jazz. These tactics, in combination with a stream of chording devices on the violin, make Edge sound considerably bigger than a quartet.
The compositions are also sweeping in content and breadth. “Threads”, for example, begins with pizzacato figures played in “unison” with the cymbals, which figures continue under a free solo from Bynum. They are eventually transformed over an arco statement by the bass, then the whole ensemble blazes into a bashing improvisation and written closing riff section that is rhythmically aggressive without sounding particularly “jazz”. Thus, Hwang uses a relatively few compositional ideas to flex out a diverse landscape of sounds that support individual choices.
“Parallel Meditations” may be the most lyrical and constructed composition here—with lovely bowed bass giving way to a vital section of unison playing between the strings and brass that allows Mr. Drury to flail away like a New Music Elvin Jones. When Mr. Hwang begins to improvise, it is deeply vocalized but still virtuosic—wide ranges, flung with expression, driving and clear. The rhythm section keeps it all on the tracks, but their sound is also reasonable unique and blended. Mr. Bynum’s statement over the same groove is also cogent in a free vein.
“Grassy Hills” is reminiscent of Ornette Coleman at first, with Bynum and Hwang playing a melody over loose rhythm in a not-too-exact unison. Mr. Filiano moves in and out of counterpoint, leading into an improvised section where each member of the quartet seems to move in and out of the melodic spotlight over slow time. Though this is the most “conventional” arrangement in many ways, it is also the most refreshing—it contains solo sections, duos, ensembles, melody, harmony. For me, it is by far the most generous dose of pure music on the disc, though it is the last. The opener, “No Myth”, contains freshly colored violin and a tom-tom-driven groove that feels Asian while still feeling “jazz”, yet a performance that also totes up the most free jazz clichés—the gnarling trumpet and the overlong drum solo among them.
For the most part, this is the kind of free jazz that refutes claims that the cats can’t play their instruments or that the randomness is kind of… you know—random. Jason Hwang’s crystalline violin tone and his obvious attention to compositional detail make him a successor to—and a step beyond—out-jazz string players like Leroy Jenkins and Billy Bang. In Edge, this band has yet to make a brilliant recording, but it seems well on its way.