Saturday 28 May 2011

Koboku Senju Live in Oxford

Koboku Senju
Tetuzi Akiyama (acoustic guitar) Eivind Lønning (trumpet) Toshimaru Nakamura (no input mixing board) Espen Reinertsen (tenor saxophone) Martin Taxt (tuba)

Stephen Cornford / Patrick Farmer / Sarah Hughes

Cornford (mixing-board (feedback)) Farmer (turntable, objects) Hughes (chorded zither)
Art Jericho, Oxford, 27/05/2011

As I walked through the door of Art Jericho (a neat little gallery space down a back-street of half-built and shadowed buildings), Patrick Farmer (on turntable and various objects), Sarah Hughes (on chorded zither (i.e. autoharp), played with various modifications and electronic treatments) and Stephen Cornford (on mixing board and objects) were creating an immediately absorbing kind of pindrop-music; indeed, the sound of a pin dropping could very well have formed part of their arsenal, perhaps connected up to some sort of feedback device or scratchily amplified on the turntable. The first ten minutes or so trod a pleasing line of simultaneous tension and stasis; there was a lot going on, in terms of events and changes (particularly from Farmer, who seemed to be playing the role of agitator, suddenly creating loud, harsh jolts of feedback and noise in unexpected places), but, at the same time, much of this took place over a fairly stable drone, provided by Hughes’ bowed zither. Then something happened, and the music moved away from this course (which it could easily have held for half an hour or more); things became more broken up, even theatrical, from delicate quiet sonorities which the half-sitting, half-standing crowd seemed to be craning forward to hear, to Farmer’s aforementioned jolts and outbursts. When Hughes bounced a small red balloon off the strings of the table-top zither, so gently that it seemed to make no perceptible sound, the performative aspect kicked home; though the three musicians were sitting fairly still at their three tables, or work stations, this didn’t feel like a solemn or reverential set-up – instead, they became garden shed scientists, fiddling around with arcane and quasi-magical devices fused from the cutting edge of electricity and the homely detritus of eccentrically-kept junk. Hughes’ strongly diatonic instrument also militated against the harshness of some of the other sounds; her employment of a simple melody (played with such delicacy that her thumb barely seemed to brush the strings) adding a folkish, even ambient touch that was all the more effective for being sparingly employed. Towards the end of the set, Farmer picked up a box and emptied its contents (compost? Chinese take-away? dried leaves?) onto the turntable, all in one motion, the gesture radically changing the sounds coming from his set-up, and providing a nicely serendipitous correlation between physical movement and sonic event. It was typical of the trio’s unforced and easy improvisational method; improvisation as the discovery of the genuinely new, the creation of surprising and pleasing relations and juxtapositions, a sound laboratory.

If Farmer could have been said, broadly speaking, to play the ‘agitator’ during the trio set, then Nakamura filled that role during the start of Koboku Senju’s performance at least, his sharp, fizzing high tones and sudden bursts of scrunching feedback giving the impression that the machine was controlling what sounds were about to come out as much as he himself – though his pose of calm concentration (which might perhaps be mistaken for sleepiness), barely moving anything more than his hands, suggested that such a situation would not have perturbed him in the slightest. It was if he was reading a book or scrutinising a sculpture, looking down at the no-input board and waiting for it to reveal its secrets to him, rather than manipulating it with obvious physical dexterity or virtuosity. Akiyama’s guitar playing was similarly untroubled and relaxed, though more conventional in terms of technique: he began with three capos clamped on the instrument’s neck, gradually removing these as the set went on, playing relatively brief melodic phrases at untroubled, though fairly regular intervals; neither settling into finger-picking nor Bailey-esque improv; later on, rubbing a metal slide over the strings to produce an arco effect. This combination of melody and the textural improv of Nakamura and the three Norwegians (Espen Reinertsen on saxophone, Eivind Lønning on trumpet and Martin Taxt on tuba respectively) was something that perhaps shouldn’t have worked in context. Indeed, what makes Senju stand out as a group is their seemingly rather clunky line-up of three brass/wind instruments, electronics, and acoustic guitar. In the end, though, it was the mesh rather than the abrasiveness of the instrumentation that compelled. Having listened to electro-acoustic improvisation for a number of years now, I thought that the days of not being able to tell which instrument was doing what might be over (that initial shock when one first hears the employment of extended techniques –, that disorienting, blurring effect), but, even seeing the music live (which should make who’s doing what clearer), it was sometimes hard to believe the evidence of one’s own eyes. How is it possible that a trumpet can produce sounds like that merely by tilting the mouthpiece to the side of the mouth? Is it possible that a saxophone can sound so un-jazz-like? Are those high sonorities really coming from the tuba? All this was compelling enough – meshing, merging, and those collective swells (not so much climaxes) out of which emerge a moment of piercing clarity, often provided by Akiyama’s melodies – but what really tipped things was the moment, about half-way through the set, when the three horns suddenly moved from extended techniques to a succession of three-voice jazz melodies. Presumably improvised and unplanned, it was, like Hughes’ zither melody in the first half, a moment of lovely and unforced surprise – and what was more admirable was that Senju didn’t just stop there, as they well could have, but moved back to textural playing (Taxt, at one point, removing part of the tuba’s tubing and clinking it against the body of his instrument; at another, turning the whole thing sideways so that the enormous, gramophone-like bell pointed directly at the audience; Lønning circular-breathing, smoothly but with an edge of roughness, a popping breath sound that came around every few seconds – simultaneously the result of physical necessity and a part of the music). Really, the hush at the end (I say hush, despite the sound of Friday-night parties passing down Walton Street) and the following applause, were more than well-deserved.

[Reviews also up from Lawrence Dunn and Richard Pinnell.]

Wednesday 11 May 2011

Billy Bang is Dead / Memorial Playlist

Billy Bang & Shoji Hano at Inage Candy, Chiba, Japan, 11th Oct 2008 (MP3 version included in the playlist link at the bottom of the post)
"I lived many deaths, being a soldier in Vietnam fighting. I learned to get past death in Vietnam as a soldier. I was afraid of death, and that's the truth – no one wants to die – but I could not be afraid of death to do my job. I pulled point, I was the first cat out, I did ambushes, I was in the actual war fighting, so I could not be afraid of death, because I might have to give my life up for my next compadre right next to me, so death had no significance for me – the job of survival did, the job of getting the job done did. So I was not afraid of death, and…nobody wants to die, but I was not afraid of it. And I'm still not, especially not now, because I think I left the world with enough documentation and testimony that if I leave tomorrow – not tomorrow, but I'm sure I will leave – then I feel good about leaving the planet earth with what I left behind me, and with me, so I have no problem with that. And then, I don't know what the next story is about, where I go, so I'm not worried about that. People who are preoccupied with that do not live, and the best thing is to live every day, each and every day until that time come. And let death take care of itself."

Violinist Billy Bang died of lung cancer on Monday, April 11th 2011, at the age of 63. Probably best known these days for two fairly recent albums reflecting on his experience as a solider in Vietnam, he’d established himself on the New York loft jazz scene back in the 70s, becoming a key figure, along with the likes of frequent collaborator William Parker, in the second-(third-? fourth-?)generation free jazz movement. His playing combined abrasive grit, rough-edged folksiness, surprisingly straightforward melodicism, and a certain swinging jazz touch (the latter was to become particularly prominent later on in his career, though that’s not to suggest he morphed into Didier Lockwood…).

The violin/drums format witnessed in the at the top of this post brings to mind, of course, the legendary collaboration between Leroy Jenkins and Rashied Ali, 'Swift are the Winds of Life'. Bang's folkish touch and Shoji Hano's ebullient rhythms ensure, however, that this duet has a very different feel, somewhere between a hoe-down, a call to the spirits, and a straightforward rock-out. Listen four minutes in as the violinist locks into repeated figures, playing them over and over with minimal variation – incantation, invocation, whatever you choose to call it, it has undeniable power.

Bang’s playing suggested any number of folk traditions - elegant plucked pentatonic figures reminiscent of Oriental music, big sawing motions and slides from American country and appalaichan traditions, percussive col legno from the avant-garde, and of course the free-jazz tinged post-bop language which he made his own. As he said in an interview, his aim was to get between the virtuoso technique of Leroy Jenkins (with whom he studied) and the much-maligned, but more intuitive approach of Ornette Coleman. It's that combination of melodic simplicity with a certain 'off' roughness around the edges (rather than the heightened sweetness we're accustomed to from Hollywood movies and the classical violin repertoire) that makes Bang really stand out. His compositions, which tended to be riff and groove based, demonstrated that same simplicity, but he was by no means a 'simplistic' musician, as should be obvious from just glancing at the number of different projects and musicians he worked with, often changing from record to record. (And as was made even more abundantly clear when listening to excerpts from WKCR’s 24-hour Bang memorial broadcast.)

Bang’s musical story proper begins upon his return from military service in Vietnam; finding the South Bronx its own kind of war zone, he half-wondered if going to fight had saved him from the equal trauma of drug addiction – nonetheless, he continued to suffer nightmares from his own experience throughout the following decades. Having studied law, his first case proved to be fixed; disgusted at how easy it was to manipulate the justice system, he ended up falling in with a group of Black-Panther-inspired would-be-revolutionaries; due to his weapons-handling experience from Vietnam, he ended up being tasked to buy the group guns. On one such trip (the weapons were to be purchased for the purpose of a bank robbery), he chanced across a violin in a pawn-shop, and, on a whim, used the money intended for the guns to purchase a violin, the instrument he had originally studied whilst at school. His comrades, convinced that Vietnam had finally driven him mad, abandoned him and carried out the robbery on their own; several of their number were killed. You could say that music literally saved Billy Bang’s life.
“The reason why I become an artist was because I was really trying to evade society’s infrastructure. When I came home from Vietnam, I didn’t want to kill anymore, I didn’t want to be part of the conglomeration of sending people out to die for non reason. So, the only thing I could find the truth in was the music. I knew I wouldn’t make a dollar, but I didn’t care about the money. I said, as long as I believe in the truth, I can live with myself. I can get up, when I go shave, I can look in the mirror and be a happy soul.”

Though his playing was rusty at first, he had apparently convinced himself that music was what he wanted to do; and not just any music, but the esoteric and most definitely non-lucrative free forms of New York’s downtown jazz players. He moved downtown, just to be closer to them, and ended up studying privately with Leroy Jenkins. Technique now matching concept, he was ready to make his mark, and began forming his own ensembles: the String Trio of New York, with John Lindberg and James Emery, The Music Ensemble and The Survival Ensemble. The significance of this latter name is twofold: firstly, even if you’re never going to make enough money to become rich or famous, you have to make enough to survive, to feed yourself and house yourself and your family; secondly, this music is actually necessary ‘in order to survive’ in a society plagued by racism and poverty and inequality and the sacrifice of artistic endeavour on the altar of money and superficiality. Over the years, it was the former that would prove the hardest to accomplish: combine continuing psychological troubles from Vietnam with a hostile or indifferent climate for adventurous jazz-derived music (particularly if it was played by African-Americans), and there were times when Bang nearly went broke. Indeed, his eventual musical confrontation with the Vietnam experience, on those early 2000s records, only came about because of his plea to Justin Time label head Jean-Pierre Leduc for a recording project: Leduc suggested tackling Vietnam, and Bang, after much thought, agreed.
“Sugar, the sweetest thing out there – we put it in our teas, our coffee, our hot chocolate – is initially, originally brown – it’s brown, it looks like my colour. But they don’t want that, so they bleach it, they make it different and they make it white, because it represents their…thing – white people, Europeans, so they make sugar white. They don’t want nothing brown to be sweet. It’s a conscious thing, it’s not an accident – it’s not like, ‘wow, let’s just drop this colour in’ – there’s a purpose to that. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves – I watched this as a kid – the cowboys that show up, the good cowboys, always dress in white. The bad cowboys, the evil guys, always dress in black. So black always means bad and negative and ugly. So I grew up with this – well, I’m saying, shit, I’m not bad and ugly and negative. The truth is, I had to fight through all this to become me, to become myself, to get beyond all this, to get stronger than anything out there, and that’s who I am to today. I learned to trust my own self and I applied that to my music. I learned that the universe is one place – the earth as we know it is only one home. I started thinking that I was a man of the planet earth, and that allowed me not to think in terms of borders and conscriptions and I was free – I was very free.”

Despite the difficulties that were to come, and those that had already been, the '70s were an exciting time for the likes of Bang: there was an abundance of music being played, recorded and released, and loft spaces finally allowed for an arena in which musicians could perform what they wanted, how they wanted, at whatever length, rather than having to kow-tow to the wishes and financial desires of nightclub owners perplexed by lengthy pieces that demanded prolonged and focussed concentration, rather than slotting into easy, manageable chunks, as the background to clinking glasses and cash registers. One gets the sense of a real community just by looking at the personnel lists on the back of the record sleeves – so-and-so appears as a sideman on this record by this other musician, who appears as a sideman on his sideman’s record…etc. Furthermore, the presence of figures about whom very little is known, such as saxophonist Bilal Abdur Rahman, who composed half the material on Bang’s own debut as a leader, ‘New York Collage’, suggests that the scene was made up of far more than just a handful of initiates and masters – especially given the fact that the ‘masters’ weren’t exactly well-known in their own right. As Valerie Wilmer puts it in her liner notes for the 1983 record 'Intensive Care' by The Jazz Doctors (Bang, Frank Lowe, Rafael Garrett, and Denis Charles): "To have reached [this] point in music history, thousands of men and women have gone unsung and unrecorded. Only a handful of individuals are allowed to enter the history books despite the clearly collective nature of music practice."

And Bang himself makes the same point, in a more generalised way:
“You can be yourself to some degree, you have to be strong within oneself, but if you just think the world revolves around you as a person, being yourself, you cannot co-exist – and co-existence makes peace, it makes love, it makes harmony. This is my belief.”

Bang’s first recording came in 1974, though it was not released until the end of the decade, as part of a compilation of music recorded at various dates over a period of several years: William Parker’s ‘Through Acceptance of the Mystery Peace’. In fact, Bang appears on two cuts from the final album – the 1974 date, which finds him somewhat submerged into a medium-sized instrumental ensemble (‘Rattles and Bells and the Light of the Sun’), and a 1976 piece forming part of the music for the ballet ‘Dawn Voice,’ in which he joins fellow violinist Ramsey Ameen (later of the Cecil Taylor Unit) to accompany Parker’s poetry recitation.

William Parker - Face Still Hands Folded
Billy Bang, Ramsey Ameen (violin) William Parker (recitation)
Recorded October 1976
from 'Through Acceptance of the Mystery Peace' (1981)

This Parker album also featured a couple of other ‘Downtown’ violinists besides Ameen and Bang: Jason Kao Hwang and Polly Bradfield, the latter of whom would appear alongside our man on Frank Lowe’s 1977 ‘Lowe and Behold’. Whereas Bradfield (a musician virtually unknown today, except to the extreme cognoscenti) has an at times shockingly abrasive approach, Bang can be heard as a contrasting lyrical (if somewhat off-kilter) voice (the track opens with his short duet with John Zorn, who was here making his recorded debut proper).

The Frank Lowe Orchestra - Heavy Drama
Frank Lowe (tenor sax, arr), Joseph Bowie (trombone), Butch Morris (cornet), Arthur Williams (trumpet), John Zorn (alto sax) Peter Kuhn (clarinet) Polly Bradfield, Billy Bang (violin) Eugene Chadbourne (guitar) John Lindberg (bass) Phillip Wilson (drums)
from 'Lowe and Behold' (1977)

The following year, Bang released the already-mentioned ‘New York Collage’: an opportunity to demonstrate his compositions, it also featured his own poetry recitation on the second side. The record opens with a tribute to John Coltrane, as was fairly standard for free jazz dates (Frank Wright’s ‘One For John’, for instance), but from the start it clearly has its own aesthetic: a brief violin solo gives way to a jaunty unison theme, soon moving into an accelerating repeated figure which provides a transition between tight written material and more ‘out’ ensemble playing, everyone soloing at once with enthusiastic abandon. Though there are plenty of fire-breathing moments here, Bang’s violin tones and compositions give a more studied, thoughtful, pre-structured feel to things than, say, is the case with the Arthur Doyle school (indeed, as Hank Shteamer suggests in a recent post on ‘Dark Forces Swing Blind Punches’, even the album that is supposedly the definition of ‘out-there’ free jazz, Peter Brötzmann’s ‘Machine Gun’, is, in fact, a suite alternating composed elements in a variety of genres, moods, and tempi.) Still out-of-print, half the album can be heard in a vinyl rip provided by Destination…out.

Billy Bang - Nobody Hear The Music The Same Way (Dedicated to John Coltrane)
Billy Bang (violin, bells, shaker, percussion), Bilal Abdur Rahman (tenor sax, soprano sax, bull horn, percussion), Henry Warner (alto sax, bells, shaker, percussion), William Parker (bass), Khuwana Fuller (conga), Rashid Bakr (drums)
from 'New York Collage' (1978)

Bang was certainly not hanging around: in the next year he released his first solo recording (from which we hear a track built around urgent, swirling repetitions and bright, hard-edged clarion calls), and his first recording with the String Trio of New York, a group he had co-founded with bassist John Lindberg and guitarist James Emery in 1977. (The Trio has continued until the present day, though Bang left in 1986, his placed since filled by a rotating cast of violinists, including Charles Burnham and Regina Carter). Though the line-up suggests a somewhat neo-classical, or perhaps third-stream side, the music contains plenty of propulsion and gut. Characteristic of the group's releases was a sharing of compositional duties between each trio member; Bang's contribution to their debut is the intriguingly-titled 'Subway Ride with Giuseppi Logan', who at the time had vanished from the scene, having been an important mentor for and collaborator with New York's 'New Thing' musicians during the mid-60s. Dancing, winding, interlocking improvisatory lines over dot-dash bass rhythms suggest the high-flung conversation between Bang and Logan, the two free jazz travellers - mystical, intellectual gravitas within the alien technological rush of the modern city. (Perhaps they didn't even speak; musicians yes, but in this case choosing to communicate through their silence, to communicate through simple presence - songs of the unspoken, songs of the unsung.) No matter the evocative nature of such contextual musings, it's an exhilirating track, tricsky yet flowing, tripping and dancing and flying through air.

Billy Bang - Part of Distinction Without a Difference
Billy Bang (violin)
from 'Distinction Without a Difference' (1979)

String Trio of New York - Subway Ride with Giuseppi Logan
Billy Bang (violin) James Emery (guitar) John Lindberg (bass)
from 'First String' (1979)

As is obvious from the larger ensemble recordings, such as the Lowe, or the varied instrumental line-ups on the Parker, Bang’s group-playing interests were moving far beyond the trumpet/ saxophone/ piano/ bass/ drums format inherited from be-bop. One might immediately think of his incorporation of traditional Vietnamese instruments on the later Vietnam projects, a timbral quality foreshadowed on the final piece from a 1980 trio session called ‘Changing Seasons’. For me, this closing track is one of the most texturally interesting of all Bang’s recordings, the combination of Toshi Tsuchitori’s autoharp and the plucked strings of Bang and William Parker giving the music an insectoid yet somehow stately quality, moving with abstract dancing flickers and flecks and sometimes even near-grooves (Parker’s grounding bass). Much of the piece’s feel – of a music on its toes, dancing quickly and skitterishly but with a certain amount of energising nervousness and trepidation – is surely due to the way Tsuchitori plays the autoharp (I suspect with some sort of drumstick). Bang, meanwhile, nicely mixes up simpatico staccato with squelches and scrapes – towards the end, contributing and developing one particular upwards-rising bowed figure (with added squeaky-door frequencies) that introduces a palpable and building sense of tension, of being inexorably drawn/ driven to some climax – compelled to go there, whatever the risks. And then the introduction of flutes right at the end, and the dissolve into the sound of crickets which opened the record as a whole. Really, I think, one of the highlights of the Bang discography. (And it’s not in print, of course.) Tsuchitori, incidentally, plays mostly drums on the record – since then, he’s moved from free jazz percussion towards investigating ancient instruments and Asian / African music and dance, recording alongside some prehistoric paintings in a French cave along the way), as well as collaborating with theatre director Peter Brook.

Billy Bang - Winter Rains
Toshi Tsuchitori (autoharp) Billy Bang (violin) William Parker (bass, flute)
from 'Changing Seasons' (1981)

We hear a different side of Bang on a perhaps dated, but nonetheless still exhilarating jazz-rock number from Bill Laswell’s ‘Material’. His violin adds bite and textural variety to the tricksy ensemble passages, and another, wilder dimension in during a solo towards the end of the track. This was recorded around the same time he made his sole appearance as a member of Ronald Shannon Jackson’s similarly funky electric band The Decoding Society (alongside Byard Lancaster, Vernon Reid and Charles Brackeen on their debut album, 'Eye on You'). On the selected track, 'Shaman', Bang gets to play the shaman in his trance, whirligging furiously in between a Shannon Jackson drum solo and the weirded-out guitar and quizzical, almost mocking melody line that dominate the tune. Also in this 'punk jazz' vein are a later appearance with British avant-rock band Sonicphonics and a guest spot with Last Exit and Diamanda Galas at the 1986 Moers Jazz Festival (available as a bootleg recording).

Material - Upriver
Olu Dara (cornet) Billy Bang (violin) Sonny Sharrock (guitar) Bill Laswell (bass) Michael Beinhorn (synthesizers, tapes, radio, guitar, drums) Fred Maher (guitar, drums, percussion)
from 'Memory Serves' (1981)

Ronald Shannon Jackson & The Decoding Society - Shaman
Billy Bang (violin) Byard Lancaster (alto sax) Charles Brackeen (tenor sax) Vernon Reid, Bern Nix (guitar) Melvin Gibbs (bass) Ronald Shannon Jackson (drums) Erasto Vasconcelos (percussion)
from 'Eye on You' (1980)

Last Exit with Billy Bang/Diamanda Galas - Enemy Within
Peter Brötzmann (tenor sax) Sonny Sharrock (guitar) Bill Laswell (bass) Ronald Shannon Jackson (drums) + Billy Bang (violin) Diamanda Galas (voice)
Recorded live at the Moers Jazz Festival, 1986

Enjoyable as they were, Bang's electric adventures in general remained something of a sideline: the real meat of his playing came during acoustic collaborations. And it was during one of these collaborations that he was pushed to perhaps his furthest extent, in a spark-generating quartet led by pianist Marilyn Crispell. At this stage, one hears her fascinatingly weaving her own sound out of (broadly speaking) Cecil Taylorian territory: the music is loud, passionate, heavy, the heavy piano chords and echoing lines really spurring Bang on to whooping, wailing flights. Bang's violin sometimes gets rather lost in the mono radio mix (there's an official recording, doubtless with better sound, called 'Live in Berlin', which I haven't, thus far, been able to get on my hands on); however, the audio is generally adequate, and this track has the added bonus of a superb Peter Kowald solo, ringing tones from his rasping, growling bass as though determinedly wringing the last drop of water from a wet sponge. Comparing all this to Crispell's rather placid recent albums on ECM makes one wish she’d continued developing what she’d started here. I'd include the whole recording in this playlist, if it weren't 38 minutes long: it can be downloaded, however, from Folly For To See For What.

Marilyn Crispell Quartet - Chant
Billy Bang (violin) Marilyn Crispell (piano)Peter Kowald (bass) John Betsch (drums)
Recorded live at Donaueschinger Musiktage, 1982 (SWF2 radio broadcast)

Rather 'lighter' in tone, but no less 'worthy', is a 1984 live date with Don Cherry, who once again proves himself as a player uniquely capable of fitting into any given context without modifying his essential style (check his collaborations with Peter Brotzmann, Rip Rig and Panic). Like Cherry, Bange was as capable of playing with an infectiously 'happy', joyous tone as he was of delving deep and stretching out. That same joy comes through in one of his catchiest tunes, 'Rainbow Gladiator', also taped in a live setting; and in a tribute to Stuff Smith recorded with, all of people, Sun Ra (who had actually played with Smith back in '50s Chicago). It's a mark of the respect with which Bang was heard that Ra took one of his very few sideman jobs in a group led by the violinist; and the date itself is a wonderful example of ostensibly 'free' players digging deep into the tradition without the slightest hint of neo-conservatism. After all, as Bang points out in the liner notes, "[Stuff Smith] was avant garde too, in his own way... By the nature of his instrument, basically. People still don't understand the notes of Smith or can catch him. He was so far-fetched, so far away from jazz. Not for the main people, not for the people that are inside, but even for people that are in my neighbourhood [The Bronx]. I had never heard of Stuff Smith. It too me a long time. You would hear Papa John Creach before you'd hear Stuff Smith. You would actually hear Ray Nance before you'd hear of Stuff Smith. So he was outside of that medium, somehow." Steve Holtje, in this same liner notes, succintly captures how the Bang-Ra group find their own way into Smith's legacy; Ra, "finding complexity in simplicity", playing a solo on this track that "almost any pianist could play - but only Ra would think of it. And while comping under Bang, Ra turns the music inside out with his off-kilter rhythms and harmonies. Bang is hardly overshadowed, spinning out inventive yet swinging, structurally sound lines. With Ore's fat bass sound and Cyrille's pointillistic drumming providing a rock-solid but supremely flexible rhythm section, the liberties Ra likes to take are perfectly supported." (Incidentally, Bang revisited this tune on his most recent recording, 2010's 'Prayer for Peace'.)

Billy Bang & Don Cherry - Unknown Title
Don Cherry (pocket trumpet) Billy Bang (violin) Wilber Morris (bass) Denis Charles (drums)
Recorded live at Tramps, NYC, 1984

Billy Bang Sextet - Rainbow Gladiator
Billy Bang (violin) Roy Campbell (trumpet) Oscar Sanders (guitar) Thurman Barker (marimba, percussion) William Parker (bass) Zen Matsuura (drums) Eddie Conde (conga)
from 'Live at Carlos 1' (1986)

Billy Bang/ Sun Ra - Only Time Will Tell
Billy Bang (violin) Sun Ra (piano) John Ore (bass) Andrew Cyrille (drums)
from 'A Tribute to Stuff Smith' (1992)

In some ways, Bang's whole life was shadowed by his experiences in Vietnam, but it wasn't until his last 10 years that he directly approached the subject in music, recruiting a band of other ex-Vietnam vets, including Ted Daniel and Butch Morris, and releasing two of his best received albums, 'Vietnam: The Aftermath' and 'Vietnam: Reflections'. Having made his peace with Vietnam, tragically, it was still Vietnam that had the last word; the cancer that caused his death was apparently a result of Agent Orange.

It was that first Vietnam album that brough him some added notice in the jazz press: people seemed surprised at its easy, swinging nature (as if Bang hadn't shown them how capable he was of playing in that style already), respectful of its historical resonance. As Jim Santella wrote in a review for All About Jazz: "The music moves evenly with a peaceful country air. Dirges, dances, ceremonial rites, a little dramatic counterpoint, and swinging anthems take on surreal qualities through Billy Bang's compositions.[...]Bang and five other members of the ensemble are veterans. They've turned these memories into a positive affair. Culture, society, and a deeper meaning color the session thoroughly, but they're couched in lively, straight-ahead jazz terms."

Billy Bang - Tunnel Rat (Flashlight & a '45)
Billy Bang (violin) Ted Daniel (trumpet) John Hicks (piano) Curtis Lundy (bass) Michael Carvin (drums)
from 'Vietnam: The Aftermath' (2001)

One of Bang's finest recent recordings came in a quintet with Frank Lowe; this was also one of the saxophonist's final performances before he too, succumbed to cancer, and, indeed, he played this concert with only one lung, becoming so out of breath at the end of proceedings that the promoter wanted to call an ambulance. Bang and Lowe’s musical relationship had lasted for more than twenty-five years, and by this stage, both had, perhaps, ‘mellowed out’ a little: Lowe’s solos, while retaining atonal interjections, are less burry and ferocious than they had been in the ’70s, instead taking on a pithy and even pretty edge, while Bang swoops between grandstanding, super-fast runs, staccato rhythmics, and smoothly expansive melodies. The track I've chosen, 'Nothing But Love', gives Lowe and Bang the least solo space of any of the tunes on the record, but their unison statements of the righteously hopefuly melody attain an added poignancy with both mens' passing. Another side of the band is shown in the video embedded below; recorded five years earlier, it finds Lowe in fine fire-breathing mode, yet manages to slot deliciously into a fairly straight (yet not cliche-laden) jazz & blues-based approach.)

Billy Bang / Frank Lowe Quintet - Nothing But Love
Frank Lowe (tenor sax) Billy Bang (violin) Andrew Bemkey (piano) Todd Nicholson (bass) Tatsuya Nakatani (drums)
from 'Above and Beyond: An Evening in Grand Rapids' (2005)

The technological boom of the past decade has meant 'obscure' musicians such as Bang can, theoretically, be seen and heard by tens of thousands of people all round the world - something undreamed of in earlier days of day-to-day struggle. And if that might be a rather utopian way of looking at things - it still is a struggle for those playing this music, and the internet isn't going to change all that - it's nonetheless true that there's more than enough good-quality video evidence of Bang's playing during the 2000s to allow even the laziest music fan to investigate his work. I've chosen to embed a few examples below (they won't be featured in the playlist, obviously). To begin with, Bang guesting with the band Trouble) contrasts Harvey Cowan’s freescrape violin solo with Bang’s own melodic, building approach. Cowan (who is apparently also an architect) sounds a bit like Bang used to – not that either approach is less relevant or valid, just that Bang plays differently now (though he can of course whip out the dissonances and rough finishes - they are what gives his playing its spice). Following that, two trios with Hamiet Bluiett, the first also featuring Jin Hi Kim on komungo (a Korean zither dating back to the 7th century), the second with percussionist Kahil El'Zhabar; another trio with Kim and William Parker; and a very fine duo with Parker (all recorded live). Roulette TV, meanwhile, has a full-length solo violin performance from 2010, opening with an introspective piece self-descriptively entitled ‘Daydream’, proceeding through a poem dedicated to Denis Charles and ending with a trademark super-fast cadenza. It's both a fine example of Bang’s solo technique and of the relation between his compositional and improvisational methods (as explained in the interview which appears towards the end of the video). Interesting also to compare it to the solo violin piece from 30 years earlier which I posted nearer the top of the playlist.

Roulette TV: BILLY BANG from Roulette Intermedium on Vimeo.

Bang appeared, if anything, to be growing stronger, rather than withering with age: albums like the Sirone-Bang Ensemble's 'Configuration' and the William Parker Violin Trio's 'Scrapbook' have some of his finest playing on record, and ‘Prayer for Peace’ had been among the best-received jazz albums of 2010 - so the news of his death came as quite a shock to quite a few people. Perhaps, those closest to Bang knew; and at last year’s Vision Festival, he’d announced his battle with cancer. But he was determined to keep on playing through it, and there were planned appearances, for example, at this year’s Vision (where he was going to pay tribute to the recently-deceased Marion Brown), and a number of other dates. The video below, from Feburary 2011, is perhaps his last documented performance: a quintet featuring Dick Griffin on trombone, Andrew Bemkey (who we heard with the Lowe/Bang Quintet) on piano, Hilliard Greene on bass, and Newman Taylor-Baker on drums. As a shaven-headed Bang leads with the solemn, hymn-like melody of 'Prayer for Peace' over churchy piano chords, trombone and bass drones, and rumbling drums, one reflects that the title of the piece he dedicated to John Coltrane could just as well apply to the man himself: "Nobody Hear the Music the Same Way."

Billy Bang Quintet - Prayer for Peace
Billy Bang (violin) Dick Griffin (trombone) Andrew Bemkey (piano) Hilliard Greene (bass) Newman Taylor Baker (drums)
Recorded live at the Savoy Theatre, 4th Feb 2011

Download the Full Playlist Here

(THIS contains some tracks from bootleg recordings and MP3 versions of videos: sound quality on these will not be up to the standard of the official album tracks.)

The quotations interspersed throughout the post above are transcriptions from a video interview given by Bang in 2007, and available online at: George Scala's Billy Bang discography can be found at, while John Lindberg's reminiscence of his time with Bang in the String Trio of New York is at New Music Box.