Music Reviews


Violinist Jason Kao Hwang was one of the mainstays of the downtown New York jazz scene of the 1980s and '90s. He still leads a jazz quartet but since then he's also composed various chamber works including an opera. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says his latest work puts it all together.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Jazz reflects who we are as a people - democracy in action and all that. But a jazz tune or solo is also a portrait of the musician who makes it. The music reflects the particular background and training that helps shape how composers compose and improvisers improvise. Jason Kao Hwang makes that autobiographical component explicit on his suite for eight pieces, "Burning Bridge." His parents immigrated from China around the end of World War II, and he grew up attending Presbyterian services in suburban Chicago.


WHITEHEAD: There is a Charles Ives-ian dimension to Jason Kao Hwang's "Burning Bridge." Ives' music was often about memory, associations and artful paraphrase-able melodies. In Hwang's composition, an imperfectly remembered hymn from childhood is a personal touchstone, turning up in several guises.


WHITEHEAD: Jazz or improvising musicians who compose chamber works can sound a little outside their comfort zone. But Jason Kao Hwang has fielded so many classical commissions, and is so used to wandering between territories, he's sure-footed even on tricky terrain. And because the violin has no fixed intervals, he can slide easily among different scales and tonalities - from the blues to China and back.


WHITEHEAD: Jason Kao Hwang's octet is a mixed ensemble of jazz, classical and Chinese instruments. There are drums, a brass trio including Joe Daley's tuba and a quartet of bowed or plucked strings. China's finger-plucked pipa and two string fiddle, the erhu, fit right in, but then traditional East Asian music incorporate striking textures, expressive vibrato and tremolo and pitch bends - rather like jazz.

For all the mixing, Hwang calls "Burning Bridge" a jazz composition. The improvisers energize, illuminate and personalize the written material. And that's Taylor Ho Bynum on flugelhorn.


WHITEHEAD: Jason Kao Hwang has said the way he mediates among several musical worlds is a mix of conscious and unconscious processes. Some ideas are plotted out and some just float to the top because of who he is. That natural flow is one of strengths of "Burning Bridge." The mixing doesn't feel contrived.

Hwang's multifaceted music recognizes how we all redefine ourselves in different situations - how our behavior shifts to accommodate coworkers, family, friends or strangers. Which is to say we're all code switchers. Jason Kao Hwang makes us hear what that sounds like.


GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure, Downbeat and eMusic and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "Burning Bush," the new recording by violinist Jason Kao Hwang. You can download podcasts of our show on our website and you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at

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