Friday, June 23, 2017

Jason Kao Hwang's Sing House on CD

After the last few months I've learned one surprising thing--contemporary free jazz is far from dead. I know, because I've reviewed plenty of it. It's not easy to do because it's hard to talk about chaos in measured terms. Either you get it or you don't. When I review albums like Jason Kao Hwang's Sing House, I have to put my head in a slightly different space because the vast majority of jazz listeners will hit the stop button on their CD players about fifteen seconds into the first track. Others love it, get it and are challenged by it. I'm always concerned that someone will run out and buy these albums based upon my recommendation and then think WTF. Caveat emptor.

Sing House is different than most of the free jazz out there because Hwang's violin is out there, front and center. In the context of free jazz, the violin can make unusual sounds that other more traditional jazz instruments cannot. Is that a reason to put this album on a pedestal? Of course not. But Hwang is a superb performer and he can extract unique sounds from his violin--buzzing insects, percussion, random machines.

Hwang's approach to these four lengthy tracks (they range between 11:14 and 13:55) is a headlong critique of western concepts of "theme and reiteration." These original compositions are designed, in fact, to challenge the listener in unusual ways--melodies delivered in unusual intervals, strange call-and-response patterns and an endless array of musical textures. The energy levels throughout the album are disjointed in a fascinating way, since there are moments of genuine and familiar melody. Hwang's sensibilities, however, are an evolving puzzle. There's a method to the madness, but a well-defined solution may not be the point.

As I dig deeper into this genre, I realize that the point may be to find hidden treasures within the cacophony--not moments of recognition or reference, but a way to expand beliefs about what music is and isn't. Deep focus and commitment are prerequisites, since anything less results in leaps for the CD player remote. When you do find that elusive point of reference, the trick is to stretch it out and notice how it relates to the more abstract and manic ideas. If you can do that, you can't count yourself among the few.

I have to admit that I'm still working on it. One day I may work it out in my mind, or I might just go back to my Dean Martin, Julie London and Harry Belafonte albums.

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