Jason Kao Hwang: VOICE
When I was growing up, I'd occasionally read stories about small, dimly lit clubs in NY's West Village during the ‘60s where sparse crowds would listen to beat poets, either performing alone or accompanied by jazz musicians offering running commentary to the poet's words. I'm reminded of such times whilst listening to Jason Kao Hwang's VOICE, though that shouldn't be interpreted to mean that the recording's some retrograde exercise or nostalgic homage to a bygone era. Rather, Hwang's recording keeps the tradition alive by presenting a modern-day take on it. That being said, the material presented is wholly acoustic and thus, at least on sonic grounds, could have been produced decades ago, the proviso being that the personnel responsible for it would have to have been extremely forward-thinking in their approach.
A few preliminary details bring clarity to the recording. On this seventy-one-minute release, two compositions are presented: Lifelines, with Hwang's EDGE (horn player Taylor Ho Bynum, drummer Andrew Drury, string bassist Ken Filiano, and the leader on violin) augmented by mezzo-soprano Deanna Relyea (voice) and Piotr Michalowski (sopranino saxophone/bass clarinet); and Words of Our Own, with Hwang on viola joined by Thomas Buckner (voice), Joe McPhee (tenor sax/pocket trumpet), William Parker (string bass), and Sang Won Park (kayagum/ajeng/voice). The texts are by Fay Chiang, Steve Dalachinsky, Patricia Spears Jones, Yuko Otomo, Davida Singer, and the late Lester Afflick (whose poems come from his posthumously published collection I Dream about You Baby).
Employing a sprechstimme style, Relyea invests her attentive line readings in the five-part Lifelines with theatricality (hear, for instance, the way “Each morning a cloudless day revels in the impossible” rolls off her tongue in “Days of Awe”), the musicians punctuating her delivery with their own inspired expressions. The result feels on the one hand loose and elastic yet at the same time structured in being grounded in the words of the text. There are multiple instances of striking vocal-instrumental interplay, a representative example the exchanges between Relyea and Ho Bynum at the start of the bluesy “Someone,” and interestingly there are passages that, were the voice stripped out, could be labeled free jazz. At such moments, it's not uncommon for associations with Ornette, Albert Ayler, and Billy Bang to surface. The music even swings in places, as exemplified by the closing part “I Raise Myself.”
The eight-part Words of Our Own is as engaging as Lifelines, especially when the players involved include McPhee and Parker. The bassist is nicely featured at the start of Otomo's multi-verse “an excerpt from a rose is a rose (for Bruce Weber),” while McPhee and Hwang also take memorable solo turns during the piece's twelve-minute unfolding. Compared to Relyea, Buckner delivers his lines with somewhat less operatic inflection but matches her for theatrical flair (hear him tear into “The death of a star like the death of a flower / is awesome, ugly, a relentless warning” during the "In Like Paradise/Out Like the Blue" excerpt); certainly the differences in their renderings lend the recording extra flavour. If Words of Our Own lacks the rhythmic drive that Drury brings to Lifelines, Parker is up to the challenge of pushing the music along when necessary.As a project, VOICE constitutes a refreshingly bold move on Hwang's part. It would have been easy for him to have recorded a handful of instrumentals with the musicians involved, and such a project might have been an easier sell, too. But in taking on a voice-based project, he's accomplished something impressive, not to mention something more memorable for being so rarely attempted. If anything, it's surprising the combination isn't more common, given how naturally poetry lends itself to unstructured instrumental accompaniment; throughout the recording, words and lines flow rhythmically in such a way that they engender a complementary response in the musician, the effect analogous to the way an obbligato by Lester Young follows a vocal line by Billie Holiday.