Violinist Jason Hwang and guitarist Ayman Fanous engage in free-form musical conversation. 

Improvised Sounds

Violinist Jason Hwang's upcoming appearance with Richmond guitarist Ayman Fanous at the Grace Street Theater is a rare opportunity. The cutting-edge seldom slices through Richmond, with the notable exception of the Virginia Museum's Fast Forward series — where somehow even the most radical events always seem less than dangerous in the elegant setting. But Grace Street's funky environs offer no similar softening effect.

Hwang has been part of the vibrant New York jazz scene for nearly two decades. During that time he has recorded with many of the leading improvising musicians, including composers Lawrence Butch Morris ("Dust to Dust") and Henry Threadgill ("Carry the Day").

This is challenging music, but rewarding to those who are willing to meet it halfway. "A lot of people think free playing must be chaotic," Hwang says by phone from his New Jersey home. "In fact, it is an evolved improvisational language. You are engaged in a conversation, and like all conversation, the meaning is created moment to moment."

His partner in conversation is guitarist Fanous, who recently returned to Richmond from New York. "He's a very original player," Hwang says. "He's self-taught, which may account for his originality. When you are trained at a place like Julliard, you try to write to please your peers." Hwang compares Fanous with classical composer Charles Ives. "Ives was good because he sold insurance [rather than taught music]," Hwang says. "He cultivated his own voice outside of the conservatory."

Hwang's own distinctive voice draws on his sense of identity as a Chinese American. He recalls an early tour through Korea with an entourage of Eastern musicians who spoke almost no English, but shared his ethnic heritage. The experience sensitized him to human connections deeper than language.

"Although I couldn't speak with them, I noticed the way they said hello, the way they thanked each other was familiar," Hwang says. "And I started to become aware of unconscious elements in myself — the way I held my head, my body language was the same as my father's; I heard my mother's laugh in mine.

"Perhaps it's my romanticism, but the more I can create from my own unconscious, the more cultural survival is in my playing."

Asian culture informs all of Hwang's work, from his modern operatic and choral compositions to music for the soundtrack for Martin Scorsese's Tibetan epic "Kundun." His critically lauded Far East Side Band offers an exotic hybrid of jazz, modern classical and Asian music, ranging from abstract microtonal explorations to something like Yangtze delta blues.

"Jason has a great sense of melody," Fanous says. "His playing is full of space, both calm and quiet, but also thoughtful and dense. His Chinese and classical approach blends well with my playing, which uses a lot of Middle Eastern and flamenco elements." The two musicians have played together frequently since Hwang sat in for an ailing Fanous sideman in a 1996 gig at New York's Knitting Factory. "Free improvisation is our common ground," Fanous says. "What we play is a combination of ancient musical traditions within a modernist approach."

For Hwang the best music is the result of a personal journey of discovery. "That's what I find compelling," he says, "to be on that quest. To be dedicated to exploration rather than


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