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Nothing Like the Real Thing

The day before Easter it was, that for the first time I saw Billy Bang play live with his Trio. A friend of mine once said it is good to refrain from corrupting an experience with words. The following words are intended to elucidate on a past experience not an anticipatory one. If there is anything I did not anticipate, it was being totally in awe of Bang’s commitment to his instrument and to his music. That some one can be this astute within his discipline, as are many other musicians I have written about, is a blessing for the world at this time --- when the world needs the revivification & the art.

The full house, though intimate, welcomed the trio’s distinct, well-tempered, timbral performance. Bang is a respectful being. He wore a black pin-striped double breasted suit with a hazy purple shirt and tie to match. Although he shed his jacket because he played so hard that perspiration got the best of him, his playing did not become casual. The fact that he plays an amped violin automatically lends elegance to the music. Bang extrudes tunefulness and spark and precision out of his instrument, joining the playing often with expressive body language. His technical prowess makes me realize how important is the delicate balance between fingering and bowing. His focus is related heavily to melody. The thematic content of his musical compositions and the choice he makes from the literature of others informs the structural basis for improvisation.

Bang’s every physical gesture, every bowing stroke, every note has meaning for the whole music. He can bow so rapidly that the bow is in strobe mode; he downbows with strength and longitude; he plays double notes and very little staccato; the bow is constantly on the strings and he reaches peaks of the register that describe shrillness. He scrapes the bow on the strings creating an elongated sound that is like one coming from a record being scratched by the back and forth motion of a needle. A measure of the strength of his bowing process is the resin that filters down onto the body of the violin near the bridge: a dusty white patch of passion. The key to the nature of Bang’s playing is his penchant for extenuated repetitions of one note. He powers the repetitions so forcefully that he drives them naturally into extinction to make sense out of the punch of improvisational change. His energy is supreme; he is obviously and dearly happy with his tunes, be they blues, expressions of joy, of spiritual rising, sadness or tribute.

Bang’s playing is so effortless that it demands that his sidemen have equal aplomb. In this trio is drummer Abbey Rader and bassist Todd Nicholson. Rader’s expertise shows immediately by the fact that no separation exists from the engagement of the snare to hi-hat to tom to bass drum. The hi-hat and bass go continually but change in volume and breadth of sound as the musical case warrants. The color of the sound that come from the hi-hats and the drums is dependent on the swerve and hiss of brushes, the types of brushes or his hands as well. He clings to the center at the snare with his drumsticks and branches out when the fury of the group presses on brought about by Bang’s fervor. Rader’s polyrhythmic pushes are evident and differentiate from his time-keeping functions, which provide a solid backdrop for Bang’s ventures. Nicholson’s fingers bury themselves in the strings; his fingers produce hard, driven pizzicatos, in solo or as rhythmic underpinning; he bows less than he plucks, yet his bowing expands Bang’s strokes in their simultaneity. In the last number, Nicholson moved into a groove during a solo interlude which entered in as if he was hit with a wonderful revelation. He had made a note phrasing statement and launched himself into an alone place where he sank into his own mind and spoke through his instrument much to the glee of both Bang and Rader and the audience.

Billy Bang is full of life. He imparts it to his fellow players with whom he creates a unified body. Bang inescapably is the conductor. With his eyes closed, Rader can catch Bang’s directions to change tempo, change the edge from improv to melody, or shut down. Nicholson feels the inside of the music, focuses, and produces clear, deep low tones, not apart from occasional glissandos. He is conscious of the indicated switches with eyes open. Everything is always clear to all of the musicians as they play all the time.

In the last number, nearly at its conclusion, Bang leaned into Rader and said "I got it--I got it" and he took it, he took it. This is the point in this article where words would corrupt the musical experience. The music has to be heard. My eyes were glued to the motion of the bow on the strings; my ears corresponded the visual with the sonoral. Bang stood straight up, with his feet together, his eyes closed, he stroked for an amazing length of time until he knew the trio needed to close. He turned to Rader and signaled. Six bowed violin downstrokes interwoven with large cymbals and snare and pizzicatos from the bass ran the piece out. It was beautiful. It was beautiful. The "adventurous journey" had ended.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Billy Bang Trio
  • Concert Date: 4/10/2004
  • Venue: Vermont Jazz Center
  • City State Country: Brattleboro, VT
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