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Billy Bang
Da Bang!
TUM CD 034

The last album violinist Billy Bang recorded before his death in 2011 is a tribute to the musical tradition that sustained him throughout his life. Recorded a mere two months before he succumbed to lung cancer, the album contains only one Bang original among compositions by Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Don Cherry, and Ornette Coleman. In the company of a relaxed and supportive quintet, including trombonist Dick Griffin, pianist Andrew Bemky, bassist Hilliard Green, and drummer Newman Taylor-Baker, Bang delivers the kind of ebullient performance one came to expect of him, despite his condition at the time. As farewell statements go, Da Bang! is a wise and joyful one.

Standard jazz repertoire on Bang’s albums was rare, but not unheard of. At one time or another, Bang recorded “Willow Weep for Me,” Jackie McLean’s “Little Melonae,” and Freddy Hubbard’s “Little Sunflower,” among others. His 1992 Soul Note release, A Tribute to Stuff Smith, was entirely given over to standards and jazz originals associated with the swing era violinist that Bang so admired. On occasion vernacular music such as the folk song “Skip to My Lou” (on his 1979 solo album Distinction Without a Difference) and the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” (from the 2000 Justin Time album, Big Bang Theory), cropped up.

Which is not to paint Bang as a closet traditionalist; he was resolutely forward thinking. Early on, he had his arguments with “jazzy” jazz, as his debut album with the Survival Ensemble, New York Collage, or his tenure in the Music Ensemble testify. But from the end of the ‘70s forward, even as he pushed his music forward, expanding his instrumental and compositional vocabularies, he increasingly made connections to the past, emphasizing continuities in spirit, if not always in form, between his music and African American music of the past. His approach is perhaps crystallized in the title of a tune he recorded in 1982 on Invitation (Soul Note) – “An Addition to Tradition.” He increasingly defined freedom not as the sloughing off of restrictions imposed by the past, but as the prerogative to take whatever he needed from any time or tradition and use it according to his own rules, in structures of his own making, to express whatever he needed to say.

In this he was hardly alone, but he accomplished it with a unique energy and verve. As a composer, Bang had a gift for effortless melody and a feel for audience-friendly hooks and grooves. No matter how far he moved away from his tunes when he soloed, he would take listeners along with him, reaching the farthest points in stages, progressively abstracting the written material until he broke into realms of pure sound. Even his freest playing was sharply rhythmic – his inner drum was strong – and the tune often reappeared as a touchstone or an anchor.

The particular urgency of his music, its drive toward transcendence and ecstasy, often seemed like an effort to outrun or purge the demons of his Vietnam War experience. He opposed their fierce darkness with an equally fierce, a combative, joy. Even after he confronted the horrors of his service on the albums Vietnam, The Aftermath (Justin Time, 2001) and Vietnam: Reflections (Justin Time, 2004), the shadows remained to tinge his music. Another era called that triumph over adversity the blues, and Billy Bang’s music was soaked in it.

On the CD’s title track, a mid-tempo free bop swinger by drummer Barry Altschul – a member of the collective FAB Trio, along with bassist Joe Fonda and Bang – Bang displays his mastery of improvisational tension and release, his solo evolving from melodic variations through legato runs that ratchet up the excitement to short, jumpy phrases and bursts of pure sound played with hot timbres.

He remains in that abstract sound world throughout his solo on Don Cherry’s “Guinea.” Bang made a terrific album with Cherry in 1982, Untitled Gift, on which it’s clear that Bang really understood how the simplicity and peace of Cherry’s world music was inseparable from and necessary to Cherry’s urge to explore and experiment. You can hear how well he absorbed these ideas in his unaccompanied introduction to “Guinea” – Bang never evoked Africa more effectively even as he asserts his free jazz aesthetic. Then with the band vamping on Cherry’s folksy riff, Bang soars above it at his most unfettered and expressionistic. It’s where the music always took him.

Ornette Coleman’s “Law Years” contains Bang’s most unsettled solo of the date, as it makes pendulum swings between straightforward melodic improvising and dark, roiling waves of sound.

But Bang’s lyrical side predominates for most of the CD. “Daydreams” is a lovely ballad performance, with a heartrending sad/sweet solo from Bang in duet with Bemkey. On “All Blues,” Bang sounds marvelously loose and establishes a flow of ideas that carries through from beginning to end without a break.

There is no happier sound in jazz than a Sonny Rollins calypso and it somehow seems right that the last track on Billy Bang’s final album is “St. Thomas,” with a capering solo that brings his career to an end on a positive note.

The band’s bantering rapport lends the whole disc a special warmth. Griffin projects the gruff, no-nonsense worldliness of a blues singer. His gentle growl and penchant for short, punchy phrases gives gravitas to “Law Years” and “All Blues.” Bemkey doesn’t draw attention to himself, but his contributions are always apt, from his bluesy outing on “All Blues,” to the beautiful pastel introduction to “Daydreams.” Newman Taylor-Baker is relaxed and interactive, prodding and supporting the soloists throughout.

It wouldn’t be right to call Da Bang! a career summary, but accumulated years of playing experience can be heard in every note Billy Bang plays on it. Instead Da Bang! is the final exclamation point to Billy Bang’s long shout of joy and pain.
–Ed Hazell

Cuneiform Records

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