Jason Kao Hwang Unleashes the Improvisors
Posted 2/11/2013

In describing his work as a composer and bandleader on recordings that mix carefully notated passages with free playing, violinist Jason Kao Hwang says, “I’m not trying to control the improvisers—I’m trying to unleash them so the music has the full benefit of their language, history and emotions.”

Hwang manages to balance and reconcile inherent dualities on many levels, musically and personally. A violin player since childhood, Hwang, 55, began listening to jazz in high school but majored in film production at New York University. While in college, he met Will Connell Jr., “and he pulled me in,” Hwang said—to the rich, spectral Downtown music scene in the late 1970s, where jazz, punk and No Wave artists mingled. Hwang also began to frequent the Basement Workshop, where the “identity movement” was at an early stage, with dancers and writers looking to Asian sources as a part of themselves that had been repressed by mainstream society.

Hwang, who performed and co-arranged the score for the Tony Award-winning drama M Butterfly, has appeared on numerous recordings, both as a leader and sideman, since the early 1980s when he was a member of the avant-garde jazz quartet Commitment, which included bassist William Parker, drummer Zen Matsuura and Connell on saxophones and flute. Hwang’s new CD, Burning Bridge (Innova), is a multifaceted and wholly absorbing reflection on his mother’s life; the music draws on both Chinese and Western musical styles. It was recorded with the members of EDGE (Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet and flugelhorn; Ken Filiano on bass; and Andrew Drury on drums), Hwang’s regular band, plus Joseph Daley on tuba and Steve Swell on trombone, along with Sun Li on pipa and Wang Guowei on erhu, the Chinese two-stringed “spike fiddle.” Chamber Music America/New Jazz Works supported the recording project.

Thanks to a Meet The Composer/New Residencies grant, Hwang has also staged and recorded an opera titled The Floating Box. Currently, he is finishing two new recordings, a duo date with guitarist Ayman Fanous and an album from Local Lingo, another group Hwang leads that features Parker and saxophonist Joe McPhee.

Since 1989, Hwang and his wife have lived in Jersey City, N.J., and this interview took place this November in the basement music studio of his home.

Did you grow up in a musical family? Was there a lot of music in the home?

My parents did not play records at home. They came to the United States from China in the 1940s. On rare occasions, we went to Chinese opera as a family, and of course it was a strange experience to me. My parents took pleasure in speaking their native language (a Hunan dialect of Mandarin). Of course, when they wanted to discuss something that they didn’t want their kids to understand, they would speak in Chinese. A lot of times I would just listen to the sounds of their speech and try to gain some cognition of what they were saying. Chinese is very tonal and full of all kinds of musical inflections. I think that’s my musical experience.

I think we construct our identities. I try to think about why I play the way I play or hear the way I hear. So I examine my childhood and think that the only musical experience in the home was language. That’s why on Burning Bridge, with the inclusion of Chinese instruments—again, in the construction of my identity—it’s not an innate capacity to have a greater understanding of Chinese instruments than anyone else of any other race. However, because of who I am and my history, I imagine those sounds have a particular meaning to my history. So, when I combine the sounds, it’s almost like the vibration of that biography.

How much did the work of other violinists influence your own playing and musical direction?

I started listening to everybody—horn players, trumpet and trombone players. Of course, I listened to violinists. I played with Billy [Bang] and Leroy [Jenkins]—they were older than me, more mature and farther down in their journey. They had a strong sense of their individualism while I was budding. It’s not that I play like them, but the possibilities of doing something individual was inspiring. Same with some of the great bass players I have worked with—William Parker, the type of abandon of he plays with, and in later years, Reggie Workman. This all exposed me to the rich creative community of New York, and all these individuals accomplishing their sound definitely inspired me.

Your work certainly brings to mind similar progressive jazz avant-gardists, like Henry Threadgill and Butch Morris, both of whom you have worked with. Have they helped you in your own compositional or conceptual development?

I think so. They are both from a different generation than mine. But with Butch, I’ve played in all of his conductions and every one of his door gigs in New York … . What he was trying to do in conducting improvisations was definitely a foundation for what I did on Symphony Of Souls. In his lexicon of hand cues, I used some of his and developed my own for the record. Others who work in conducting improvisations, like J.A. Dean and Adam Rudolph, have been a help to me as well. We have all been dealing with this issue of how to sculpt and control—or not control—the material, and how to create flow. I eventually found my own way through it.

Henry, too—and Fred Hopkins, whom I’ve also played with—they’re powerful individuals to me. They’re playing music that only they can create; it’s not from the conservatory and has wide influences as well. Henry’s sound has a searing, angular intensity that is soulful and inspiring. His compositions are uniquely personal and fun to play. He has a steely determination, and a lot of people feed off that strength.

In the liner notes of your 2010 Spontaneous River recording, Symphony Of Souls, where you lead a 35-member strong orchestra, you talk about framing “improvisations within an improvised structure.” That seems to be where the Improviser’s Art reaches its pinnacle.

It requires artistry and skill for musicians to move fluently between written notation and open improvisation. If I ask the violins and violas to sustain a chord, some might play a B-flat diminished, someone else an E minor flat 5, and then a soloist might improvise over that color within another harmonic suspension, and from that total energy, flow into a written passage when conducted.

Your compositions for EDGE typically feature sections of formal written notation and sections of improvisations that often are group improvisations easy to regard as free-jazz. What brought you to this exploratory realm of musical performance and composition?

Everyone in the band EDGE is very creative and a composer themselves. When they are given this free space they are mindful of the composition and the motifs that were played before or the rhythms that were outlined; so when they depart from them, the music will launch them into directions I can’t imagine. That’s what is exciting: the process of mutual discovery even though the identity of the composition is always there. Even though the duration of the improvisations, whether solo or duo, is not defined by metrics, the piece finds its own symmetry. If everyone is “on,” then they know when to resolve. If players don’t know what they’re doing, though, that’s when there can be a problem [laughs].

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Jason Kao Hwang (Photo: Jean-Baptiste Guillemin)

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