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Jason Kao Hwang

Human Rites Trio



1. Words Asleep Spoken Awake: Part I [6:45]

2. Words Asleep Spoken Awake: Part II [9:02]

3. Conscious Concave Concrete [9:31]

4. 2 AM [6:06]

5. Battle for the Indelible Truth [11:49]

6. Defiance [9:44]

All compositions by Jason Kao Hwang

Jason Kao Hwang (violin, viola)

Ken Filiano (bass)

Andrew Drury (drums)

Rec. August 5-6, 2019, Park West Studios, Brooklyn

Of Chinese parentage, but born in the USA, violinist/violist Jason Kao Hwang was born in 1957. His parents emigrated from Hunan province in China soon after the end of World War II. Hwang was born in Illinois and brought up in Waukegan, north of Chicago. While his elder sisters were taught Chinese, he grew up speaking only English. Initially he studied classical violin, before taking a degree in Film and Television at New York University. A friend, the late Will Connell Jr (he died in November 2014) – a saxophonist and clarinetist, originally associated with Horace Tapscott and the Los Angeles Black Arts Movement, who later became a popular figure in the New York avant-garde – introduced Hwang to the avant-garde jazz of the New York Loft scene around 1980. Soon this kind of jazz became the governing passion of Jason Kao Hwang’s life. By the 1990s his status was such that he recorded with many of the leading figures of free jazz – such as Henry Threadgill (Too Much Sugar for A Dime, 1993 and Carry the Day, 1995), Anthony Braxton, (Octet: New York, 1995 and Sextet : Istanbul, 1996) and William Parker ( Sunrise in the Tone World, 1995). He has also recorded, with several different ensembles, a number of albums under his own name, including The Far East Side Band Caverns (1994),The Floating Box (2004), Local Lingo (2006),Stories Before Within (2008), Crossroads Unseen (2011), Symphony of Souls (2013), Zitzal (2013), Voice (2016), Sing House (2017) and Blood (2018). A fine duo album with Karl Berger, Conjure, was released in 2019. This new album is the first by this particular trio to be released, though they have worked together regularly for more than ten years (either as a trio as part of a larger ensemble)– certainly the three musicians sound utterly, one might say empathetically, ‘together’ on Human Rites Trio.

Bassist Ken Filiano has worked with Anthony Braxton and Bill Dixon, amongst others. He teaches at the New School in New York. Drummer Andrew Drury studied with the great Ed Blackwell at Wesleyan University, before going on to work with, amongst others, Wallace Rooney, Myra Melford and Wadada Leo Smith.

Hwang plays viola on ‘Conscious Concave Concrete’ and ‘Defiance’ – often playing the instrument pizzicato, producing guitar-like sounds – but sticking to violin on the remaining four tracks. The title of the disc (and ensemble?) is worth some consideration. There is, surely, some serious wordplay involved in the word ‘Rites’? If one reads that word purely as meaning a ceremony or act of observance that has some kind of religious significance, one can interpret the title as an invitation to understand the shared attention to music (and its performance) as a ritual in which all human beings can participate; if we understand the word ‘Rites’ as also ‘containing’ the word ‘Rights’ – which we are likely to do since it follows the word ‘Human’ – ‘Human Rights’ as in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, then the album’s title simultaneously invokes the sociopolitical dimension/undercurrent present here (as in so much free jazz).

The CD booklet contains a perceptive essay by Scott Currie and also a brief contribution by Hwang himself, which he concludes thus: “This CD was completed during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. The music honors all the heroic doctors, nurses and frontline workers who are saving so many lives. The music is also dedicated to the memory of all the people whom we have tragically lost to this terrible disease.” While, of course, I recognise the appropriateness of that statement, I am also tempted to hear the music as related to the Civil Rights movement and to the sort of brutality which was soon to kill George Floyd and give new momentum to the Black Lives Matter movement. It is, of course, irrelevant that the three musicians are not themselves black.

Something of the music’s range is evident from the two, essentiallly contrasting, parts of ‘Words Asleep Spoken Awake’. Part I begins with a loose bouncy rhythm, comfortable and relaxed, until drummer Andrew Drury doubles the tempo. The music becomes more intricate, the instrumental interplay more subtle. But, until its very end, Part I remains very controlled and sounds almost as if is an entirely composed piece. Part II soon heads in a different direction. The intimate sounds of Part I, woven together like overheard birdsong don’t last long, as an intense and passionate fury takes over. There are still moments of quiet beauty, but they are overtaken by some forceful free improvisation in which instrumental timbres are expressively distorted and which sometimes comes close to chaos, but never actually becomes incoherent. The arco bass of Ken Filiano is especially impressive here as is some triple-stopped violin by Hwang. At the movement’s close Hwang’s violin, underpinned by plucked bass and simple patterns on the drums, is lyrically elegiac.

On ‘Conscious Concave Concrete’ Hwang switches to viola. The piece opens with some insistent rhythms, a kind of minimal background for a basic dance or, as Scott Currie’s notes suggest, a “shuffle”. As the ‘shuffle’ ends, a lengthy pizzicato solo on the viola takes over, initially unaccompanied, calm but fragmentary, before bass and drums return and the mood and phrasing of the blues set the tone. There are moments when Hwang’s viola sounds almost like a country blues guitarist and others when his Chinese heritage is audible. For those suspicious of the very notion of free jazz, this might, I think, be the best track to begin with. Its subtleties and its clear sense of structure make it perhaps the most easily assimilable piece on the disc. Having listened to this most will be able to turn to some other tracks with more confidence in the musicianship of Hwang, Filiano and Drury.

‘2 AM’ begins with a kind of nocturnal melancholy, with Filiano’s bowed bass providing an introduction. (It is striking how often Hwang’s titles allude to the time of darkness, of sleep – or sleeplessness – and dream). But it soon becomes more vibrant and energetic, not least in a fine solo by Hwang and some infectiously rhythmic contributions by Filiano and Drury. There is an affirmatory, almost celebratory quality to this track, a strong sense of the values of love and life. As such it helps to prepare the ground for the last two tracks, ‘Battle for the Indelible Truth’ and ‘Defiance’, ‘2 AM’ suggesting what the defiance and the battle seek to preserve against the forces opposed to them.

‘Battle for the Indelible Truth’ begins in an appropriately martial fashion with Hwang’s viola sounding almost fanfare-like and bass and drums powerful and aggressive but disciplined. ‘Battle’ runs through a gamut of changing emotions, from the ferocity of its opening through sorrow and quiet reflection. Even when far from ‘noisy’ this piece possesses a considerable power as it fights for the survival of what Hwang’s title calls an “Indelible Truth”, perhaps the truth of common humanity, akin to what is declared in Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and human rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”. Given such concerns, it is wholly appropriate that the ensemble heard on this fine disc is not called the Jason Kao Hwang Trio, but rather the ‘Human Rites Trio’. Each member of the trio retains his musical freedom and individuality and each chooses to collaborate (“in a spirit of brotherhood”) with the other two in the creation of music which expresses a shared vision. The disc closes with ‘Defiance’, which articulates an ongoing struggle, though at times it also has a quality of formality, even of the ceremonial, of the ‘rite’ as well as ‘rights’. It balances clear form with, at other moments, intuitive freedom. It closes quietly. There is no concluding sense of triumph. But the quiet which closes this piece (and therefore the disc) presupposes an ongoing defiance, in the assumption that the struggle must go on.

Hwang comes close, in his booklet note, to a sort of explication of the music, when he writes that “Each composition is a progression of gestures, songs, movements and locations that bring participants into a state of discovery and compassion. Within these Human Rites, individual voices are empowered to be fully expressive so that each moment is unpredictable and deeply intentional. This psychic intensity, both sacred and sacrificial, provokes a heightened awareness that unifies Listeners and Musicians within a spiritual entertainment. As we hear ourselves within music we become Music, which is no longer a performance but an affirmation of justice and celebration of life.” The listener is, indeed, very much a ‘participant’ in music such as this, music which requires active rather than passive listening. Like all seriously worthwhile music this is the very opposite of ‘easy listening’. This is intelligent, accomplished and purposeful music-making and the album is warmly recommended.

Glyn Pursglove


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