For it seems that Billy Bang, like many other Vietnam veterans who had seen indescribably horrible events occur before their young eyes, not only couldn't confront the memories of those events, but couldn't talk about them. Not even though music, possibly the most cathartic form of art.
If a musician suppresses deeply held feelings through the dulling effects of drugs and alcohol (as Bang mentions in the liner notes), and if he denies the experiences that define the rest of his life, then only a portion of his artistry is evident. Having been awakened by recurring nightmares that never mitigated throughout 34 years, Bang finally faced his fears, wrote the music that had been within him for much of his life, and achieved catharsis. And a landmark recording.
Wisely, Bang recruited, so to speak, some fellow Vietnam veterans for the recording: Ted Daniel, Frank Lowe, Ron Brown, Michael Carvin and Butch Morris. So, with the addition of Sonny Fortune, John Hicks and Curtis Lundy, Bang's group isn't merely playing his compositions; they're feeling them.
Carvin gets just the right sound to simulate an Oriental cymbal--more of an abrupt clang than a swing-implicit sizzle. Lundy's bass lines use a repetitive figure uncommon in jazz but certainly recognizable by Westerners from the Vietnam War movies and documentaries. But more importantly, Bang's violin combines the harmonies of the country he tried to forget with the jazz vocabulary within his being. For example, Bang's pizzicato melody on "Tunnel Rat (Flashlight and a .45)" foreshadows a leisurely depiction of the Vietnamese country with, but unexpectedly it turns into a swinging romp allowing for jazz improvisation. The common (or uncommon) element on all of the tunes is the intensity of Bang's playing as he rises from a simple statement of melody quickly into a frenzied outpouring of sorrow and release. Similarly, even though "Yo! Ho Chi Minh Is In The House" (irreverently applying present-day vernacular to lighten the effect of a terrifying situation) starts atmospherically with Daniel blurting into the mouthpiece while Hicks, Lundy and Carvin set up a scene of sunrise, it doesn't take long for Bang to increase the intensity with his vigorous bowing over the tune's modal structure.
The closing track, "Saigon Phunk," brings together the entire group, including flutist Sonny Fortune, for, yes, a funky tune of Vietnamese harmonies (that is, involving modes rather than modulations) that's danceable in a Western sort of way in spite of the oddness of the repetitive melodic patterns. "Bien Hoa Blues" achieves the same effect of combining jazz vocabulary, this time in casual swing, with the governing Oriental elements. And then, tunes like "Mystery Of The Mekong" abandon all attempts to merge the music as Bang delves into the tonal underpinnings of the music of the unfortunate region that drew French and then American soldiers to fight a war without a clear focus or mandate.
As Vietnamese have immigrated to America and the cultures have merged throughout the country, and especially in places like Westminster, California, it's time to recognize that the influence of their music has enriched Western music, including jazz, just as have the African, Latin and European influences. The problem, though, is that the cultural expansion of the Vietnamese musical palette brings with it unforgettable memories and images retained not only by those who were affected by the first war documented by television, but also by those who flew to that country to kill or be killed.
Billy Bang finally has relived those experiences. At the same time that he shares a unique perspective and music with his listeners, he also has started to drive out the demons that have haunted him for decades. Vietnam: The Aftermath is a CD quite unlike any other, and Justin Time is to be commended for allowing--no, encouraging--Billy Bang to fulfill his artistic vision.