Jason Kao Hwang experiments to create new jazz on “Sing House”

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Jason Kao Hwang makes a point to deviate from Western musical standards on his new album, “Sing House.” For him, the ideas that structure and regulate Western music have grown “intellectually cute.” Hwang avoids the superficial and makes jazz comparable to other forms of art.

Before listening to “Sing House”

Listeners should take a moment to peruse Hwang’s album before diving into the recording. I like to start there with new music–partially for the liner notes. What potential listeners will find is that “Sing House” only contains four songs, yet it is almost one hour long. I wondered if Hwang’s music would be the jazz version of progressive rock.

The next thing to look for is a title track. Sometimes, a title track serves as a theme. That is not the case here. Basically, new listeners should orient themselves with the musician or group before listening. This is crucial with a performer like Hwang.

I can appreciate his position–jazz is one hundred years old. How can performers keep the genre new and relevant? “Sing House” is Hwang’s way of demonstrating just that.

Hwang’s art: “Sing House”

The album’s title offers a mystery I sought to solve. What exactly is a “sing house”? According to Hwang’s website, “The music is a house…in which musicians extemporaneously sing.” In addition, performers are both one with the song, and separate from it. All contributions work toward the music’s unifying abilities.

Further, Hwang intends for the work to be irregular. And it is, until listeners get used to hearing familiar instruments played in unusual ways. Some people will probably never get used to what Hwang does.

The sound of “Sing House”

Song number three, “When What Could” sounds like an exercise in “what if?” The cool jazz opening, features a plaintive horn refrain over drums tapping fast and light. Suddenly, a sound derived from nature, perhaps, breaks up the familiar jazz motif. The trombone sputters, the violin languishes, the piano plinks out high, lonely notes. Then the song builds again with spirited strings giving way to bright horns. Along the way the violin comes to life, and the drums crush soft. Jazz as Westerners know it has returned. However, the song’s structure changes again. An almost rock-like groove played on strings, couples with horns, and the drums are decidedly out of time. The violin, played by Hwang, is picked and manipulated and does not sound like itself. When the horns are heavy, and the drums take off into a run punctuated by cymbals, it is a triumph for experimental music.

To appreciate Hwang’s work, listeners must let go of their preconceived ideas about what jazz can do. Simply having the expectation that jazz should perform a certain way, proves Hwang’s point.

Hwang’s experimental music works because it is clear to him what must happen to make it work. Traditional ideas are not enough for him anymore, and seems as though he is determined to show audiences the limits of their expectations.

Far from being the progressive rock of jazz, Hwang’s album is musical impressionistic art. The length and variable structure make “Sing House” interesting to listen to.

 

 

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Dodie Miller-Gould is a native of Fort Wayne, Indiana. She has BA and MA degrees in English from Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, and an MFA in Fiction from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her research interests include popular music and culture, 1920s jazz, and blues, confessional poetry, and the rhetoric of fiction. She has presented at numerous conferences in rhetoric and composition, and creative writing. Her creative works have appeared in Tenth Muse, Apostrophe, The Flying Island, Scavenger's Newsletter and elsewhere. She has won university-based awards for creative work and literary criticism.

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