Review by Brad Walseth
Waukegan-born violinist Jason Kao Hwang's "Edge" group lives up to its name by taking the listener to the very edge of music (or Western at least) where you dangle precariously over the yawning void before you are allowed to pull your foot back. Thankfully, their new release, "Stories Before Within" is an engaging trip with a breathtaking view from the precipice. Combining Chinese and other Oriental influences with classical, blues, free jazz and even Ukrainian folk music, and filtering it through an modern avant-garde atmosphere, Hwang and his excellent band have produced a true multicultural phenomenon nearly as startling as hearing Schoenberg and the Art Ensemble jamming the blues in an opium den.
Not unlike our local fave, Yoke Noge, Hwang is able to clothe the Blues spine of Jazz with a mysterious Eastern cloak. That all the musicians involved are so talented only helps complete the mysterious and powerful presentation, and their solo improvisations and group interaction merit praise. Cornetist Taylor Ho Bynúm, reminds me a bit of trumpeter Enrico Rava with his creative interjections and delicious sense of time and space, while perceptive drummer Andrew Drury brings an array of taps, traps and timbres to the sound. Powerhouse bassist Ken Filano veers from lumbering along dangerously like an enraged bear, to sliding/driving in gorgeous menace along a tautly bowed string. Over the beautiful tumult, Kwang rises and swirls in transient twists and turns, producing ghostly illusions that sway, gibber, glimmer and then disappear like puffs of smoke.
Hwang states in the liner notes that while composing for this album he was concerned with how "storytelling" affects both the writer and reader — moving forward while moving internally into subconsciousness. This absorbing music is clearly a reflection of the composer’s musings. Themes appear and reappear, and there is organized change and movement, but there is also an overriding thread that connects all the pieces into a kind of timeless state. By the time the album ender, "Embers," an inexplicable mélange of blues and far-away samurai drumbeats, drifts away, you will find yourself entranced by Hwang’s visionary compositions. Asian-tinged, avant-garde world music at it’s best, "Stories Before Within" is highly recommended for people who like their music a little closer to the edge.