The Living Theatre, alive with the sound of avant garde music


Jason Kao Hwang at The Living Theatre

On a the early side of a Nor’easter floating over the metropolitan area, 25 hardy souls made their way several blocks from the closest subway to the downstairs performing arts space The Living Theatre. Located in the heart of the gentrified Lower East Side — just south of what used to be called Alphabet City — The Living Theatre is primarily a dramatic space but has recently established itself as a venue for some of the more progressive Downtown jazz that might not get booked at The Stone, located catercorner across Houston Street.

The Living Theatre is currently absorbing the diaspora left gigless by the demise of the CBGB Lounge Sunday series, which came up after the transformation and then closure of Tonic, occurring after the makeover of the Knitting Factory… Who knows how long this space will stay amenable to bands like violinist Jason Kao Hwang’s EDGE — which drew that brave crowd on December 15th — but while the relationship is still in its googly-eyed stage, the oft-predicted demise of Manhattan as an avant garde jazz island has been deferred.

Hwang, a NYC progressive stalwart since the ’80s, led his group — Ken Filiano (bass), Andrew Drury (drums and percussion) and guest/sub Steve Swell (trombone) — in a preview of Hwang’s forthcoming upcoming album for Innova Recordings. Swell, a go-to-guy for many a forward-thinking ensemble, was there in lieu of trumpeter Taylor Ho Bynum; the result was a rounder-toned foil to the sharp ruminations of Hwang’s violin and, for one tune, his moody viola. Offering warm counterpoint and some bombastic, physically involved solos, Swell, as he usually does, made the trip to The Living Theatre worth battling the inclement weather. Filiano and Drury make for a beautiful rhythm section, with the former often stepping forward to act as a third contrasting voice and the latter, known for his solo percussion, laying down appealing pseudo-swing (and an obligatory bowed dustpan solo!).

Hwang the composer has absorbed the advances of avant garde violin father Leroy Jenkins and melded them with his own classical and Asian leanings. He prefers the through-composed, submitting long-form pieces far more episodic than spontaneous with propulsive bounce bookending chamber-like sections. While the concept behind his pieces — found on the new and previous album as well as compositions he has been playing for decades — is compelling, Hwang can become too enamored of them. The six songs played took up almost 90 minutes and quite frequently the music passed its sell-by date with unnecessary bass solos or endless ostinatos. Hwang obviously has a keen compositional mind but too often stays in a somewhat trying extended mode that dilutes the impact of his works.

Perhaps this is because of a desire to play as long as possible while there is still somewhere to perform, but Hwang should shorten the live renditions of his pieces so as not to try the patience of listeners, especially ones who had to drive home in the snow.

For upcoming performances at The Living Theatre, visit

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