Jazz Album Review: Karl Berger and Jason Kao Hwang “Conjure” Freely

By Michael Ullman

These are two practiced masters at free improvisation. I am confident that many listeners will find them as intriguing and accomplished as I do.

Karl Berger playing vibes at his Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, NY, where this disc was recorded. Photo: Michael Ullman

Karl Berger and Jason Kao Hwang, Conjure (True Sound Recordings)

Even their spoken manners are different. Recalling this 2014 recording date, violinist Jason Kao Hwang goes on expansively: “It was a crisp, sunny March day when I drove to Woodstock to record with Karl in his home studio. Having played in Karl’s Creative Music Orchestra, we were familiar with each other and understood that our music making of that day would be spontaneous and unpredictable, as life is. Without written score or any predeterminations, we opened ourselves to each other into the unified mystery and light conjured within each of these journeys, for which I am grateful.” The elder of the two at 84, vibist and pianist Karl Berger is more direct: “I want to thank the moment and circumstance in time that got us together for this music.”

These are two practiced masters at free improvisation. The titles they gave Conjure‘s on-the-fly pieces point to the elusiveness of their creative process. They include “Silhouettes,” “Vanishing Roots,” “Below Zero,” and the more explicit “Beyond Reach.” On “Beyond Reach,” the two start almost simultaneously — Hwang lays down a full-toned line and Berger, on piano, responds with crisper phrases. It’s as if they had assumed personae for the purpose of this see-sawing conversation: Hwang = expansive and Berger = crisp. It’s not always that way, however. After a few minutes, with the pedal down, Berger plays some repeated chords, which triggers a change in the track’s direction. He’s an equal partner now, and they improvise actively together.

On “Vanishing Roots,” Hwang takes a different approach. He bends some notes as he plays his instrument; he somehow manages to sound intense and flighty at the same time. Berger counters by moving rapidly over the keyboard, claiming a greater range than previously. He contributes a repeated upward phrase that becomes (temporarily) the body of the piece. They continually react to each other in chameleonic ways, sometimes as compatriots, sometimes as combatants. There’s humor in this musical dissembling.

The recording’s final number, “Arise,” begins with a doom-laden low note on the piano, to which Hwang responds with some sounds (I don’t know how he makes them) that resemble the crackling of a creaky door. If it’s time to arise, it may be the dead who are coming back. Much of the rest of the piece goes on to assert that something more disturbing is happening than rise and shine. Hwang sounds agitated while Berger is intent on providing pedal tones. But I am merely summarizing select sections of Conjure‘s bounty of spontaneity. There is plenty to ponder in each of the album’s eight improvisations. I am confident that many listeners will find them as intriguing and accomplished as I do.

Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts