With his 2011 album, Symphony of Souls, violinist and composer Jason Kao Hwang attained an intense singularity of expression by leading an orchestra of 37 string players plus drummer through 11 gripping movements. On Burning Bridge, the veteran experimentalist strips his enterprise down to an octet but reaches for the spheres to equally profound effect. The five-part work combines, sometimes strikingly, elements of jazz and classical and traditional Chinese music. In doing so, though, it strives not for seamlessness but for illuminating contrasts and juxtapositions.
The octet consists of members of Hwang’s Edge quartet—cornetist/flugelhornist Taylor Ho Bynum, perennially underrated bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Andrew Drury—plus Steve Swell on trombone, Joseph Daley on tuba, Su Li on four stringed pipa and Wang Guowei on two-stringed erhu. Burning Bridge is informed by the Hwang family’s migration to the Chicago suburbs following World War II. But it’s a decidedly nonlinear piece, revealing itself through a painterly free association, and it’s less about East meets West than about the universality of thought and feeling.
Reflecting on the recent death of Hwang’s mother, the music builds slowly and sparely from a theme of ascension or rebirth, then darkens and intensifies, roughed up by Swell’s unearthly sounds. Serial shifts in tone and texture and ethnic style follow. An anthemic burst is followed by mournful trumpet over rapidly strummed pipa and then a dose of swing violin. A Presbyterian hymn takes up residence in a Mingus-like blues, which somehow swells a la Leonard Bernstein. A voice of conscience and memory on violin, Hwang appropriately concludes this cycle with an old composition, “Ocean.” This music is as deep as it is wide.