(It may seem odd to many jazz fans that the performance celebrating the release of an album by a somewhat avant-garde fellow would be held at New York City’s most legendary rock & roll club, but there you have it. But not really all that odd, when one considers a good-sized chunk of the current audience at many free jazz performances (in many cities, not just NY) are alternative/punk/avant-rock youths. Anyway, onward )
The subject: jazz violinist /composer Billy Bang. The event: the recent release of his (finest) album, the concept-oriented Viet Nam: The Aftermath, on the Justin Time label. The band: John Hicks, piano; free tenor sax legend Frank Lowe; James Zollar (subbing for Ted Daniel), trumpet; Curtis Lundy, bass; Michael Carvin, drums; Ron Brown, percussion. The time: 4:30 PM on an overcast, damp Sunday afternoon. Locale: CB’s Gallery (annex of CBGBs), The Bowery. Bang has found a way to exorcise his personal war demons by creating music inspired by his tour of duty in Viet Nam during that 60s "conflict," and he’s assemble several fellow veterans to this end. Most but not all of these fellows who are on the album are in performance on this day. While you’d have every right to expect the music inspired by this rather stress-filled and momentous chapter in US history to be loaded with fury, it isn’t yes, there’s anger, but also humor, joy, relief, compassion and the warmth of friendship and camaraderie and the resilience of the human spirit in the direst of situations. Bang also wove in the influence of Southeast Asian folk melodies along with the wail of freedom and the swagger of funk.
Bang’s compositions are melodious, engaging and exultant, as evidenced by much head-bobbing and feet-tapping (not to mention rapturous applause from the capacity crowd). Many of the melodies literally sang from the violin/trumpet/sax front-line, and when they went "out" into the stratosphere, the music never lost its focus or rhythmic impulsion. One highlight was a particularly frenzied, impassioned solo from Bang reached the ionosphere but when he was gliding back to the melody it was as graceful as a ballet dancer’s movements. Whereas Bang has been tagged in the past as an avant-gardist, his more recent playing has more of a hearty Stuff Smith-styled tone, whilst still retaining that edge. (You’ll never mistake him for Staphane Grappelli, but there’s nothing about his style that’d "scare" most listeners.) The fires of Lowe, too, have been tempered by the years on some occasions years back he could be harsh and shrill, but here he had a Lester Young-type tone at times. Zollar played rousing, rippling trumpet that reflected the influences of Ellington’s brassmen, Lee Morgan and Louis Armstrong, and Hicks, though hampered slightly by a tinny Yamaha piano, was forceful as mid-60s McCoy Tyner and genially lyrical as Hank Jones. Lundy and Carvin had That Rhythm Thing DOWN, providing an interactive, churing, earth-moving matrix. Although a solo here and there tended to ramble a bit, it was clear that Billy Bang assembled a true BAND, playing with a unity of purpose, as opposed to an assortment of soloists on the same stage. For those who think "avant-garde jazz" or "wild, adventurous & edgy" music can’t be rollicking and immediate, I direct your attention to the latest platter and ensemble of Mr. Billy Bang.