Journey to a unique soundscape that blends contemporary jazz with East Asian instruments and styles, all performed by this path-breaking ensemble of the late 1990s. Composer, and violinist Jason Kao Hwang subsequently earned best-of-the-year listings in Downbeat, Jazz Times, Jazziz, and All About Jazz. His chamber opera, The Floating Box, A Story in Chinatown, was named among the top ten recordings of 2005 by Opera News. This early experimental quartet also features multi-percussionist Satoshi Takeishi, jazz tuba artist Joseph Daley, and Sang-Won Park on Korean zithers (kayagum and ajaeng). The notes include essays on Asian American jazz and Jason Hwang’s new introduction. Their performance took place at the Freer Gallery of Art in 1999.
Asian American Jazz Pioneers:
The Far East Side Band
Jason Kao Hwang, composer/violinist
Joseph Daley, tuba
Sang-Won Park, kayagum, ajaeng
Satoshi Takeishi, percussion
|Rapids Rapids the Shadows Play
This concert was presented at the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, on January 16, 1999, in cooperation with Transparent Productions and with support from the Smithsonian’s Asian Pacific American Studies Program (now the Asian Pacific American Center).
This 1999 live concert recording of the Far East Side Band at the Freer Gallery is a rare gem because it is the only recorded document of the group’s final years. We mostly performed music from my second CD, Urban Archaeology, which was recorded before percussionist Satoshi Takeishi had joined us. We also performed two new compositions, “Streams” and “Light,” which were not released in either Urban Archaeology (Victo Records, 1996) or our first CD, Caverns (New World Records, 1994). What is exciting about this recording of exceptional audio quality is that it captures the band’s spontaneous energy and flow, which characterized our live performances and feels different than the studio recordings on CD. I truly love this concert! I am deeply grateful to Michael Wilpers and the Freer Gallery for presenting us and preserving this recording for posterity. Following are excerpts from the liner notes for Caverns followed by the liner notes to Urban Archaeology.
̶ Jason Kao Hwang, 2021
When Louis Armstrong disparaged bebop as incomprehensible “Chinese music,” he could not have foreseen a time (now) when American music would prove to be large, inclusive, and resilient enough to encompass not only jazz innovators such as Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, but also a brilliant confluence of Asian music and instrumentation and the freedom of collective improvisation. One might even say that it is the music, rather than the body politic, which has fulfilled the promise of the democratic “American experiment” in its boundless capacity to absorb new cultural forms and sounds, and in that way to continually reinvent and revitalize the textures of American music.
In the 1970s, Jason Kao Hwang and I were members of the Writers Workshop of the Basement Workshop, a historic Asian-American arts center in New York’s Chinatown. During that whirlwind time, a growing Asian-American movement drew much of its inspiration from the Black Civil Rights Movement and confronted a multitude of issues, including opposition to the war in Southeast Asia, demands for university ethnic studies programs, decent housing, and social services in the Asian communities, and combating pernicious media stereotypes. As part of a widening conscious and collective exploration of identity, many Asian-Americans also sought to reveal and express their newly emerging selves through art. As the writer Bharati Mukherjee has said, one can hear “America singing in the seams of the dominant culture.” And within those seams, musicians such as Russel Baba, Gerald Oshita, Jon Jang, Fred Houn, Miya Masaoka, Francis Wong, and Mark Izu sing themselves, creating technically and emotionally complex, intense, and richly evocative work.
The Far East Side Band—composer/violinist Jason Kao Hwang, kayagum and ajaeng player Sang-Won Park, and percussionist Yukio Tsuji—emerges from this context, this continuum, while opening the “envelope” of the music out further. Leader Jason Kao Hwang views the band as “an extension of the Asian-American community” and credits poets Lawson Inada, Mei Mei Bersenbrugge, Fay Chiang, and myself, and choreographers Theodora Yoshikami and Sin Cha Hong, as inspirations and collaborators in his development.
His creative process is inseparable from his unique experience as an artist of color in America. “This music must exist beyond conventional categories to be true to my experiences as an Asian-American. You couldn’t accurately bag this music as jazz, classical, or blues. The music on this compact disc—its mystery and beauty—is nourished by at least two cultural streams: the forms and rituals of Asian music as well as the improvisatory freedom of jazz. Hwang stresses the connection between music and language. He believes the inflection and structure of phonemes in language correspond directly to the music of that culture. As an American-born Chinese who speaks little Chinese, he enjoys exploring a musical language that is the essence of his cultural survival. The Far East Side Band is an expression of this American experience. In the words of poet Adrienne Rich, music may well be that evanescent “dreams of a common language. Throughout this recording, the duo and ensemble work are exceptionally empathic—one feels privileged to eavesdrop on an acutely sensitive and inspired musical conversation.
—Excerpted from Richard Oyama, liner notes to the CD Caverns (New World Records, 1994)
Asian American musicians bring a unique approach to improvisation, born out of the political struggles of their forefathers who laid the tracks for the first transcontinental railroads, labored endlessly in the cane fields, and were interred in prison camps during World War II. Amid the toils of daily work and under the weight of misunderstanding and prejudice, these new Americans sought to preserve the culture of their distinctive homelands while forging a strong Asian American identity.
The next generation of Asian Americans experienced misunderstanding, cultural isolation, and prejudice too and sought a bond with the homeland of their parents while seeking their own Asian American identity. For some, artistic endeavors became an important means of self-expression. The road to self-discovery for many Asian American musicians meant absorbing new cultural forms present in America from call-and-response to the spiritual fervor of field hollers. For others, jazz history was a given, and the path to rediscovery of their forefathers’ cultural heritage led to a continuous revitalization and reinvention of musical idioms. Still for others, a new identity meant growing up in an Asian country and bringing that musical knowledge to bear on their new experiences in America.
Whatever their origins, Asian American musicians must create within a broad array of social and political history that increasingly finds them redefining the Asian and American properties in their music. While Asian American musicians Francis Wong and Jon Jang show a capacity to absorb Chinese opera and folk music with jazz, creating a hybrid musical expression that retains the qualities of its sources, Chinese American violinist Jason Kao Hwang’s Far East Side Band evokes an intimately spacious tonal and textural landscape that relies less on formal structures than it does on the improvisational history and personalities of its band members on their second CD, Urban Archaeology (Victo Records, 1996).
Hwang grew up in a middle-class family in Waukegan, Illinois. His first trip to Asia with choreographer/vocalist Sin Cha Hong and percussionist David Simons in 1991 and a return trip to Korea with Hong and Samul-Nori in 1992 introduced him to many Asian artists whose improvisations extended beyond traditional Asian music. While in Asia, Hwang saw body language and speech rhythms that reminded him of his parents and of himself. He now believes that these characteristics resonate in his music as textures, colors, rhythms, and inflections, which are expressed without inhibition through the improvisation. The music then becomes a mark of cultural survival and transformation.
Hwang began his cultural investigations with film studies at New York University. Here he created a poetic 30-minute documentary about Asian American identity, Afterbirth, which was showcased at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum. He wrote numerous film scores and is now working on his opera, Immigrant of the Womb, which uses images from the Boxer Revolution. It will premiere in New York at the Dance Theater Workshop in February 1996.
Hwang met Japanese percussionist and shakuhachi player Yukio Tsuji at Chinatown’s The Basement Workshop in the early 80s. In his performances Tsuji explored the personal expression of Asian instruments. Working together in New York clubs and later performing and co-arranging music for David Henry Hwang’s Tony Award-winning play, M Butterfly, Jason Hwang and Tsuji gained a more intimate knowledge of their respective musical heritages. In the spring of 1992, Hwang called Tsuji and Korean musician and vocalist Sang-Won Park to form the Far East Side Band. Park, who plays kayagum (12-string zither) and ajaeng (7-string zither using a resined wood bow) had performed on Hwang’s score for the PBS documentary Homes Apart: Korea by filmmakers J. T. Takagi and Chris Choy.
On the Far East Side Band’s 1994 debut CD, Caverns (New World Records), they created a quiet sound that breathed with space and subtle transformations. Hwang’s violin exhibited an Asian timbre, at times reflecting the tremolo of a Chinese pipa and Asian folk traditions. Tsuji’s shakuhachi became more prominent, its melancholic expression and shifts in color, shadings, and tone creating a mystical poetic reverie. Park’s delicate nuances and lyrical shadings provided intimacy.
“Because a lot of the composition process utilizes improvisations,” says Hwang, “it’s collaborative. As we develop a piece, I listen to their responses. I work from a primary knowledge of their sound and musical personality. My study of a musician’s background is through him; what he embodies in his whole life, every detail of how he phrases, every shading and color of his sound is what I listen to when I write a piece. It’s a different approach than if I were to extract formal qualities from his training. My perspective is more on him as an individual.”
The Far East Side Band has taken a new direction with the addition of the tuba and electronics of New Yorker Joe Daley on their new CD, Urban Archaeology for Victo. From his work with Sam Rivers, the Ebony Brass Quintet and George Gruntz’s Tuba Ensemble, Daley brings a creative understanding of playing multiple roles on his instrument. Daley’s rich tone, eloquent lyricism, and rhythmic power creates new dimensions in the Far East Side Band. On Urban Archaeology, the Far East Side Band’s Asian sensibilities meld comfortably with textures from jazz and with the lilting rhythms of an African processional as well as the technological contours of an electronic age. Traditional Asian instruments together with the electronic processing of the electric violin and tuba give the compositions an organic feel of ancient and new sounds. All the music on this CD follows transformational journeys. The multiple movements create an architectural design that takes the listener from one room to the next. On “Urban Archaeology” and on “Distance between Memories,” images are freely juxtaposed like a dream. “Mizu” and “The Shadows Play” flow narratively, with characters emerging to tell their stories.
Hwang wants listeners of the Far East Side Band to come away with a poetic resonance that they can carry with them into new realms of experience. That’s all part of a new cultural horizon among Asian American musicians that is helping to redefine our notions of jazz and Asian music traditions.
—Robert Hicks, liner notes to the CD Urban Archeology (Victo Records, 1996)
The music of Jason Kao Hwang, composer/violin/viola, explores the vibrations and language of his history. His compositions are often narrative landscapes through which sonic beings embark upon extemporaneous, transformational journeys. His recent release, Conjure, features his duo with Karl Berger, and his CD Blood is performed by Burning Bridge, his octet of Chinese and Western instruments. In 2020, 2019, 2018, 2013, and 2012, the El Intruso International Critics Poll voted him #1 for Violin/Viola. In 2017, Downbeat magazine named his quintet Sing House as one of the best of the year. His 2015 CD Voice features vocalists Deanna Relyea and Tom Buckner. The CD Zilzal, his duets with Ayman Fanous, was named one of the top recordings of 2014 by All About Jazz/Italy. The 2012 Downbeat Critics’ Poll voted Mr. Hwang as rising star for violin. The first CD with his Burning Bridge ensemble was named one of the top recordings of 2012 by Jazziz and the Jazz Times. In 2011, he released Symphony of Souls, performed by his improvising string orchestra Spontaneous River. In 2010, the New York Jazz Record selected Commitment, The Complete Recordings, 1981–1983 (from a collective that was Mr. Hwang’s first band) as one the 2010 Reissued Recordings of the Year. His quartet EDGE released EDGE (2006), Stories Before Within (2008), and Crossroads Unseen (2011), all of which appeared on top ten-recordings-of-the-year lists. His chamber opera, The Floating Box, A Story in Chinatown, was named one of the top ten opera recordings of 2005 by Opera News. As a composer, Mr. Hwang has received support from Chamber Music America, the National Endowment for the Arts, Rockefeller Foundation, New York Community Trust, New Jersey State Council for the Arts, New York State Council for the Arts, and US Artists International. As a violinist, he has worked with William Parker, Anthony Braxton, Butch Morris, Reggie Workman, Pauline Oliveros, Taylor Ho Bynum, Tomeka Reid, Patrick Brennan, Will Connell, Jr., Zen Matsuura, Oliver Lake, Adam Rudolph, and Jerome Cooper.
Sang-Won Park, kayagum and ajaeng, performs repertoire that ranges from traditional genres to contemporary and improvisational music. A native of Seoul, he began his studies at the National Conservatory where he trained in Korean instrumental and vocal music and dance as well as Western classical music. At Seoul National University, he earned his B.A. and M.A. degrees in musicology. He was a member of the Traditional Music Orchestra of Seoul, a researcher at the Academy of Korean Studies, and an instructor at Seoul’s leading music schools.
He made his American debut at Carnegie Recital Hall in 1979 and then toured the US and Europe. His CD Le Kayagum de Park Sang-Won was produced and distributed by the French record labels Les Amis de l’Orient and Sono Disc in Paris. He has lived in New York City since 1980 and performs traditional music while actively collaborating with many avant-garde musicians. He joined guitarist Henry Kaiser and percussionist Charles K. Noyes to produce the CD Invite the Spirits, a double album on the OAO/Celluloid label. He has performed in concert with Laurie Anderson and appears on her CD Mr. Heart Break (1984) and the feature film Home of the Brave: A Film by Laurie Anderson (1986). He has also appeared in Nam Jun Paik’s 1986 satellite production, Bye Bye Kipling, on public television.
Mr. Park formed the improvisational music group Far East Side Band with violinist Jason Kao Hwang, percussionist Yukio Tsuji, and tuba player Joe Daley. Together, they produced two albums, Cavern and Urban Archaeology, and have performed at international festivals. Mr. Park was featured in the BBC-TV documentary Rhythm of the World and the documentary Improvisation, written by Derek Bailey and produced by Channel 4 in the UK. His life and music were the subject of the NPR feature “Old Tradition and New Sound,” narrated by Judy Collins.
Joseph Daley, tuba, is a contemporary music, jazz, and improvisation artist. He studied at the Manhattan School of Music, attaining a bachelor’s degree in performance and a master’s degree in music education. He has received fellowships in music composition from the National Endowment of the Arts, MacDowell Colony, Music Omi, and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. His debut CD project, The Seven Deadly Sins (2011), features his Earth Tones Ensemble Jazz Orchestra and mines the same rich vein of musical expression as that of Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, and George Russell. His follow up project titled The Seven Heavenly Virtues is orchestrated for string orchestra and percussion. It was supported by the New Music USA’s CAP recording program made possible by funds from the Mary Flager Charitable Trust. Daley produced three CD projects for his JoDa Music Label: Portraits, Trayvon Martin Suite, and the Tuba Trio Chronicles. He recently retired as a music educator after thirty years of service. Mr. Daley has performed, recorded, and toured internationally with Muhal Richard Abrams, Bill Cole, Far East Side Band, Sam Rivers, Ellery Eskelin, Liberation Music Orchestra, Gil Evans, Carla Bley, Taj Mahal Tuba Band, Jayne Cortez, George Gruntz, Howard Johnson and Gravity, Ebony Brass Quintet, Paradigm Shift, Dave Douglas, Bill Dixon, Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, Craig Harris and God’s Trombones, Spider Monkey Strings, Burning Bridge, and Hazmat Modine.
Satoshi Takeishi, percussionist, was born in Mito, Japan, and studied at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he developed an interest in the music of South America. He spent four years in Colombia, where he worked on the project Macumbia—combining jazz with traditional and classical music—alongside composer-arranger Francisco Zumaque. Takeishi performed with the Bogota Symphony Orchestra in a series of concerts honoring the Colombian composer Lucho Bermudes. In 1986 Takeishi returned to Miami and produced the CD Morning Ride on the Polygram label for jazz flutist Nestor Torres. He has also studied Middle Eastern music with Armenian-American ‘ud (Arab lute) artist Joe Zeytoonian. Since moving to New York in 1991, Takeishi has performed and recorded with Ray Barretto, Carlos “Patato” Valdes, Eliane Elias, Marc Johnson, Eddie Gomez, Randy Brecker, Dave Liebman, Anthony Braxton, Mark Murphy, Herbie Mann, Paul Winter Consort, Rabih Abu Khalil, Toshiko Akiyoshi Big Band, and Erik Friedlander. He performed at the Freer Gallery in 2008 and 2011 with the Korean and American ensemble Tori, both of which concerts can be heard on these podcasts: https://asia.si.edu/podcast/a-korean-and-american-jazz-excursion-five-directions/ and https://asia.si.edu/podcast/the-arirang-of-tori-a-korean-and-american-jazz-collaboration/.
This podcast was coordinated by Michael Wilpers, manager of performing arts. Audio recording by Andy Finch and audio editing by Jason Hwang. Web production by Gio Camozzi. Copyediting by Ian Fry. Special thanks to Jason Hwang for granting permission for the museum to share this recording for educational non-profit purposes. This performance was recorded live in concert at the Meyer Auditorium, Freer Gallery of Art, on January 16, 1999, in cooperation with Transparent Productions and with support from the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Studies Program (now the Asian Pacific American Center).