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 influences how composers compose and improvisers improvise. Jason Kao Hwang makes that autobiographical component explicit throughout his extended composition for eight pieces, Burning Bridge. His parents made the move from China around the end of WWII, and he grew up attending Presbyterian services in suburban Chicago.
There is a Charles Ives-ian dimension to Hwang’s Burning Bridge. Ives’ music was often about memory, associations and artful distortions. In Hwang’s composition, an imperfectly remembered hymn from childhood is a personal touchstone; it turns up in several guises.
Jazz or improvising musicians who compose chamber music can sound a little outside their comfort zone. But Hwang has fielded so many classical commissions, and is so used to wandering between territories, that he’s sure-footed even on tricky terrain. Because the violin has no fixed intervals, he can slide easily among different scales and tonalities, from the blues to China and back.
Jason Kao Hwang’s octet is a mixed ensemble of jazz, classical and Chinese instruments: there’s drums, a brass trio and a quartet of bowed or plucked strings. The Chinese pipa and erhu fit in seamlessly, but then traditional East Asian players incorporate striking textures, expressive vibrato and tremolo and pitch bends — rather like jazz musicians. For all the mixing, Hwang calls Burning Bridge a jazz composition. The improvisers energize, illuminate and personalize the written material.
Hwang has said the way he mediates among his various musical worlds is a mix of conscious and unconscious processes: Some of the music is plotted out and some just floats to the top because of who he is. That natural flow is one of strengths of Burning Bridge; the mixing doesn’t feel contrived. To extrapolate a little, this multifaceted music recognizes how we all define ourselves in different ways at different times; 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.