The San Francisco area has produced a majority of the bands that meld modern jazz techniques and ancient Asian idioms, but one of the most intriguing comes from New York City. Violinist and composer Jason Kao Hwang’s Far East Side Band–named in a playful nod to the city’s Chinatown, which overlaps with the Lower East Side–references the traditional music of China, Japan, and Korea in long, spacious, episodic pieces that deftly manipulate the band’s instrumental balance, dissolving the distinctions between rhythm section and soloist. Hwang, the second most famous violinist to grow up in Waukegan–after Jack Benny–is best known for cowriting and performing the music for the 1988 Broadway production of M. Butterfly, but he’s also worked with a number of Manhattan improvisers, including William Parker and Butch Morris. Like a paper dragon that casts a magnified shadow, the Far East Side Band–founded as a trio in 1993 and now a quartet–seems much bigger than it is. Much of the credit goes to drummer John Mettam, who employs a full battery of Asian percussion instruments, including Japanese taiko and Chinese cymbals, to enlarge the group’s sonic footprint. Korean-born Sang-Won Park shares center stage with Hwang, alternating between two traditional zithers–the harsh and rustic-sounding twelve-string kayagum, plucked with the fingers, and the throaty seven-string ajaeng, which is bowed with a rosined stick–and sometimes singing in an eerie, mournful style adapted from a form of Korean folk opera called p’ansori. Tubaist Joe Daley, who joined the group in 1995 for Urban Archaeology (Victo), provides a welcome bottom to its sound, something absent from the band’s 1994 debut, Caverns (New World), and Hwang himself has a plaintive, sweet-and-sour tone that echoes Chinese classical music as well as the New York avant-garde. The band’s synthesis of East and West combines ephemeral grace with the awesome weight of centuries-old traditions. The Far East Side Band performs on the first day of the fifth annual Asian American Jazz Festival; a solo set by Wu Man, a virtuoso of the four-string Chinese lute, or pipa, opens the program. Thursday, November 9, 8 PM, Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago; 312-397-4010.


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Dames.