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Music Reviews: Jason Kao Hwang, Spontaneous River, EDGE, and Macy Chen

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In this first entry of Moment’s Notice, we’ll explore varying approaches to the creative process. There’s Jason Kao Hwang’s Spontaneous River, a string outfit that gets a charge out of throwing out the rules entirely. And there’s Macy Chen, who combines seemingly disparate musical cultures to dazzling results. Finally, Hwang’s EDGE returns with a little bit more structure and a lot more vibration.

symphony of souls

Jason Kao Hwang/Spontaneous River – Symphony of Souls

Based out of New York City, Jason Kao Hwang’s Spontaneous River is an outfit comprised of 37 string improvisers and a drummer. Symphony of Souls is a series of unstructured movements, exemplifying the inspired rule-breaking vitality that can only be generated by letting go of convention and letting fly the spirits of sound.

Hwang serves as composer, conductor and violinist on the record, cleverly holding together the movements that sometimes settle into grooves (“Movement 2”) and moody pastures of tension just waiting for sweet, sweet release (“Movement 4”).

Hwang’s journey to Spontaneous River began in 2007 when he and Patricia Parker assembled a string orchestra to put together a memorial tribute for Leroy Jenkins. He received an overwhelming number of interested string musicians and, after a performance conducted by Billy Bang at Vision Festival XII, Hwang decided to put his own compositions before his newly-amassed horde of instrumentalists.

Recorded at Systems Two in Brooklyn, New York, Symphony of Souls is more than the nexus of improv and organization; it is a transformed method and a commitment to discharge art from the broad-shouldered boundaries of the page and the chart. It is about communication, energy and sheer passion. And it smokes.

macy chen

Macy Chen – After 75 Years

Vocalist Macy Chen’s After 75 Years is, to borrow the cliché, a labour of love. For one thing, the recording came in one of the most exhilarating and flat-out awesome presentations I’ve come across. It is a compendium of memories, sent in an elaborate envelope complete with pictures and a true story that spans three generations.

After getting over the packaging, barely, Chen’s voice began to scorch its sexy little way through the speakers. Singing a mesh of jazz and traditional Chinese standards, including six tunes from 1930s-era Shanghai, the sultry singer engages us from the outset with the genre she lovingly calls “jazAsia.”

The point of all of this isn’t just to showcase a great voice or to introduce standards like “Unrequited Love” and “Languishing Dreams.” No, the real meat of After 75 Years is to close the cultural gap by informing us that, yes, there really was a jazz movement in China when America was obsessed with Big Band. And yes, the songs are worth listening to.

Chen brings an easy, flowing sound to these pieces from the 30s. She also has some of her own numbers, including a lush string-led song called “Fly Away.”

Hearing Macy Chen sing has become one of my new pleasures, right up there with a glass or four of wine and a good cigar. Her tone is crisp and sultry without overdoing it. She shows a restraint that many of our “top” singers could learn from. And for Chen, it really is all about conveying what lies inside by using the wonders of jazAsia.

crossroads unseen

Jason Kao Hwang/EDGE – Crossroads Unseen

I thought Jason Kao Hwang has had a “little bit of crazy in him” since 2008’s Stories Before Within. That was when I first came in contact with his work in EDGE, a slightly maddening ensemble that includes Hwang on violin and viola, Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet and flugelhorn, Andrew Drury on drums, and Ken Filiano on bass.

The follow-up to Stories is Crossroads Unseen.

Hwang continues to flirt with the lines, although there is more structure to help fence in the madness. Intuition plays a major role in keeping the players on the same page, as they bound around various arrangements seemingly by sense alone. It wouldn’t surprise me if Hwang had everyone play in the dark, to be honest.

Lest you think I’m knocking EDGE for having no sense of direction, I’m not. There’s always been something jubilant about Hwang, at least as far as I’m concerned, and Crossroads Unseen is no different.

The album earns it from the get-go, opening with “Elemental Determination.” This is a piece that lets Filiano beat the living tar out of his bass while Byum’s flugelhorn goes for a deceptively chaotic walk. Drury finds the groove.

In the liner notes, Hwang refers to America’s “melting pot” culture of assimilation and how he attempted, after only being taught English, to glean what he could from listening to his parents speak Chinese in the home. Listening to Crossroads Unseen is kind of like that, I think, with each passing splinter of musical dialogue, like the meditative thrusts found on the title track, revealing new knowledge.

Hwang’s work with EDGE falls directly in the avant-garde box and is comfortable sharing space with other musicians who spot a sonic border and immediately think “Escape!”

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