Jason Kao Hwang’s “Lifelines”

Violinist Jason Kao Hwang is a frequent guest at Ann Arbor’s fall extravaganza of improvised music, Edgefest. This winter he has released a CD called Voice featuring his “Lifelines” suite performed by his Edge quartet with guests Deanna Relyea (voice) and Piotr Michalowski (sopranino sax and bass clarinet) from Ann Arbor. This suite was commissioned by Edgefest and premiered at the festival in November, 2012, and recorded in January of 2014.

VoiceHwang selected five poems for “Lifelines” and wrote a musical score for them. What is central to Hwang’s writing is that it leaves a lot of room for improvisation, as well as interpretation by the musicians. Like other great jazz writers he has adapted the score to fit the voice of his instrumentalists (and vocalists). Relyea was free to speak or sing her lines. For the listener, it is impossible to tell what is improvised from what is written. Each piece comes across as an organic whole.

The Edge quartet is made up of Hwang’s violin, Taylor Ho Bynum’s cornet, Ken Filiano’s bass, and Andrew Drury’s drums. These four musicians have played together for many years so it is no surprise that they excel at collective improvisation. At times there are solos of some length, but mostly it is a group effort.

Relyea shows her wide range of expression in particular on “Days of Awe” (by Patricia Jones) with a steady mix of spoken and sung lines in various emotional tones. Michalowski’s sopranino sax is also very apt on this piece. The two poems by Lester Afflick have their textual rhythms accentuated by Filiano’s sturdy bass lines and Drury’s sharp drum licks. “I Raise Myself” has a beautiful intro on bass and “Someone” has some great growl cornet from Bynum and soulful violin from Hwang. But as I have already indicated, my strongest impression from this record date is how well it works as a whole.

“Lifelines” takes up half of the CD; the other half, “Words of Our Own,” features poems performed by Thomas Buckner and an ensemble which includes saxophonist Joe McPhee, another well–known name from Edgefest.