Billy Bang Group
Sangiorgi Theatre, Catania, Italy
Apr. 1, 2006

Even if for a violin player like Billy Bang it would not have been too difficult to be noticed in any time or place, it has to be said that at the end of the 70s there were not too many violin soloists playing jazz - with or without the "avant-garde" tag. Curiously, thanks in part to a very popular genre like (the so-called) Progressive, the opposite was true in "rock" - one has only to remember that even a violin player like Jerry Goodman, one of the three featured soloists in the acclaimed Mahavishnu Orchestra, came from (US) rock group Flock. As it's well known, the main exception in jazz were the (so-called) "Chicagoans", musicians who used (again) instruments (and styles) which were well outside the confines of what were by now clichés, starting from the instrumentation commonly used at the time; hence, Leroy Jenkins and his violin.

For this writer, Billy Bang became a familiar name at the end of the 70s/early 80s thanks to the work of two Italian record labels which at the time were a safe harbour for a lot of quality music, be it "avant-garde" or not: Black Saint, home of the String Trio Of New York, a line-up that featured Billy Bang's violin, James Emery's guitar and John Lindberg's double bass; and Soul Note, a label on which Bang recorded some fine albums as a leader. His violin could be fine also as an added colour, as is the case with Memory Serves by Material, on many a stage with Sun Ra's Arkestra, and alongside Kahil El'Zabar's percussion on a little-known album such as Another Kind Of Groove. At a certain point I lost all traces of him, so as soon as I read of a concert in my town I immediately bought my ticket.

The repertory played by the group on this night came largely from a nice album from 2001 titled Vietnam: the Aftermath, with (provided I remember correctly) just one number (Reconciliation) taken from its follow-up from four years later, Vietnam: Reflections. A veteran from the Vietnam war, which he fought as a young man in difficult, risky tasks, in the end Bang tried to find peace in composing music which combined popular airs from Vietnam and his personal approach to jazz; to record those pieces, he called musicians who had mostly shared that dramatic experience.

Alongside Bang's violin, tonight the line-up features a few musicians who had played on the album: Ted Daniel's measured trumpet (I remember his fine work with Dewey Redman and Henry Threadgill); the elegant piano played by John Hicks, very good as a soloist and as glue; the elastic double bass played by Curtis Lundy; while the drums, which on record were played by Michael Carvin, are played by Newman Taylor Baker, always looking at ease, the different styles notwithstanding; a man who doesn't forget John Coltrane's lesson, Salim Washington is on tenor and flute, instruments that on record had been played by the late Frank Lowe and by Sonny Fortune.

The themes which refer to Vietnamese music come out alright, avoiding sounding like "movie soundtrack" music. Though quite aware of "free", very often the music shows traces of Mingus, in certain swinging moments and in some bitter-sweet melodies - though this is Mingus as seen through the lens of the Art Ensemble Of Chicago. Yo! Ho Chi Minh Is In The House, Moments For The KIAMIA, Tunnel Rat, Fire In The Hole and the closing Saigon Phunk make for a very good night: Bang plays the themes - often together with trumpet and saxophone, with subtle, precious work by the piano - and performs excellent solos; trumpet and tenor are also very good, in spite of the fact that the music language cannot really surprise us anymore; the rhythm section is solid.

Nice sound/acoustics, with two main exceptions: the piano is mixed way too low (but why?), so during a solo you get it, but the subtle harmonic thread that's so easy to hear on record here is lost; then, there's really a bit too much reverb on the violin, so that grieving timbre that is the perfect ingredient for these melodic climates at times almost comes out sounding as a bit rhetoric. Just tiny weak points, ok?, for what was a really fine concert.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2006 | Apr. 14, 2006