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Changing the Seasons

In a hall that has tripled in size due to the contributions of area jazz enthusiasts, the Vermont Jazz Center hosted The Billy Bang Quartet on a brisk October night at the slippery edge between summer and fall.

The Billy Bang Quartet is a group that knows where it is going. Violinist Bang as leader has cast a musical net over his band mates. Each member plays with the acuity, diligence, bravura and sensibility which characteristics Bang himself possesses. The incomparable energy of this band ushers them through sentimentality, poignancy and joy.

Bang seldom enters at the beginning unless he is plucking his violin like a small oriental stringed instrument. Rather, he lingers in the background until the piano, the drums or the bass has laid the ground on which he can stand. The groundwork is remarkably solid, established with the pace that Bang sets within his compositions. Its nature is direct, clipped, snapped and sharp. The themes of each piece stand out. Their nearly formulaic statement and resurgence renders any improvisation loose and evocative.

Bang’s body holds the heart where his music originates. When he plays his instrument, he isn’t playing with his mind... he connects the bow and the strings of the violin with emotion and relentless drive. His playing guides the music as heat would coax a flower to bloom. Bang often attacks the violin strings with the bow. The pitches rock, bend, skip, bounce, turn, swoop and hop just like Bang’s body. At times, discrete moments of sound from the violin disappear. The music can explode into climax or charge into ecstasy.

Whether bowing or plucking his bass, Todd Nicholson manages his instrument as if he were connected to it. The tonality that emanates from it has a specific range. Nicholson digs hard into pushing this tonality out, leaving extremes behind. An ascending-descending motif pervades his playing. The notes are clear and numerous. The resonance of the strings is large, open and never murky.

Andrew Bemkey's fingers find security on the keyboard. In going at it alone, he tends towards perfectly synchronized two handed tripping up and down the keys. He appeals both to the bass and the treble and everything in between and even touches on stride. His fingers can fly in the openness that he carves out, released for a time into their own phrasing space. But his reverence to his bandmates is evident. Bang and Bemkey hitch up often in exquisite parallel lines. Bemkey’s contribution to the quartet is indispensable. He has the requisite energy and aplomb.

Drummer Newman Taylor Baker exudes nothing but sensitivity. He chooses how to produce a fresh, un-heavy round on the drumset every time he takes hold of his seemingly long sticks. Yes, he does attend to sonic coloration with mallets and brushes. But his precision in creating a cymbal and drum collective shines in a persistent backbeat and more prominently when he rises to a solo interlude. The sticks can cross to reach opposite cymbals or one will click the metal edge of the snare on the left as the other taps the ride cymbal on the right. This way of playing is not unusual. What is different is Baker’s touch. It is in stunning proportion to what the other band members are doing.

Bang revivifies a story-telling capacity with his music. The repetitions so vibrantly manifested in the music recall the healing choruses of tribal song. Bang pays tribute to other musicians as well.

The sustenance in Bang’s music is his voice. His voice has arisen through listening and absorbing and living. No two ways about it, this band has groove, melody, compassion. It’s got Bang.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: The Billy Bang Quartet
  • Concert Date: 10/14/2006
  • Subtitle: The Billy Bang Quartet
  • Venue: Vermont Jazz Center
  • City State Country: Brattleboro, VT
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