Billy Bang: Da Bang!
Da Bang! is a special release for many reasons, the most obvious being that it documents the final studio work recorded by jazz violinist Billy Bang. Recorded only two months before his cancer-related death in April 2011, the album is a fitting tribute to this singular artist, who added his own voice to a rarified club boasting members such as Stéphane Grappelli, Stuff Smith, Jean-Luc Ponty, Jerry Goodman, Michal Urbaniak, Joe Venuti, and Leroy Jenkins. The line-up Bang assembled for the session includes legendary trombonist Dick Griffin as well as musicians who regularly accompanied him during his final period, namely pianist Andrew Bemkey, double bassist Hilliard Greene, and drummer Newman Taylor-Baker.
To say Bang led a fascinating and full life is a gross understatement: he recorded five albums with the String Trio of New York (which he co-founded in 1977 with guitarist James Emery and bassist John Lindberg), five with the FAB Trio (featuring bassist Joe Fonda and drummer Barry Altschul), and two with Tri-Factor (Bang joined by multi-instrumentalist Kahil El'Zabar and baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett), and was as comfortable playing in a traditional jazz ensemble context as with Bill Laswell's Material (Memory Serves, 1981) and Ronald Shannon Jackson's Decoding Society (Eye On You, 1980). Bang's post-high school Vietnam stint had an especially profound impact on his life: in addition to becoming active in the anti-war movement upon his return, he revisited the experience on two later recordings, 2001's Vietnam: The Aftermath and 2005's Vietnam: Reflections (in fact, Bang believed that the cancer he contracted was caused by exposure to Agent Orange during his time in Vietnam).
While Da Bang! itself is less adventurous on conceptual grounds compared to some albums in his discography (thirty as a leader and another dozen or so in other contexts), it's a thoroughly satisfying affair and argues strongly in favour of Bang's gifts. Highlights are plentiful and the selections themselves are an interesting lot, with a single original (“Daydreams”) accompanied by covers of pieces by Barry Altschul, Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, and Sonny Rollins. As such, one could regard the album as Bang paying homage to favourite musicians and some of his greatest influences. Admittedly, it might have been more interesting to hear Bang tackle a less familiar Davis-associated tune like, say, “Nefertiti” (even if it is a Wayne Shorter composition) than a warhorse like “All Blues,” but that's a minor complaint, all things considered. The album certainly holds up as a wonderful portrait of his working band's sound.
The hard-grooving bop of Altschul's “Da Bang” immediately establishes the recording's loose and swinging vibe with Bang and Griffin voicing the head and setting the stage for individual soloing. No one would think the end would be so near for Bang given the way he tears into his solo, a move that in turn cues the others to dig into their own spotlights with equal conviction. Cherry's “Guinea” is memorable for being such a powerful showcase for the leader, especially when the piece's opening finds Bang exploring a broad range of techniques in an unaccompanied solo that lasts three minutes before the band kicks in with its own soulful reading of the trumpeter's Eastern-tinged vamp. Bemkey introduces “Daydreams” with a suitably dreamy solo, the pianist's elegant touch paving the way for a sweetly lyrical turn by Bang wherein echoes of Stuff Smith emerge. With Griffin and Taylor-Baker sitting out, Greene solos at length before Bang returns to reiterate the tune's melodies before unleashing a bravura solo of free-wheeling sawing.
Bang's affection for Coleman's music was made clear on Untitled Gift, which the violinist recorded in 1982 with Don Cherry, and is re-affirmed by the inclusion of “Law Years,” which the band tackles with gusto. “All Blues” is given a faithful rendering, the key difference being the front-line of Bang and Griffin in place of Davis and saxophonists Coltrane and Julian “Cannonball” Adderley. Familiar it might be, but there's no denying the joyous swagger of “St. Thomas,” and the group does Rollins proud by investing its performance with the same kind of exuberance the saxophonist is renowned for bringing to his own. A final word of praise must be extended to TUM for honouring Bang with such a deluxe presentation, the CD accompanied by a full-colour booklet featuring photos, bios, commentaries, and poems, the latter of which (by Amira Baraka, Amina Baraka, Quincy Troupe, Steve Dalachinsky, and Sebastian “SibaGiba” Bardin-Greenberg) were recited by their authors at a memorial event for Bang in New York City on September 19, 2011, a day before what would have been his sixty-fourth birthday. The release is a fitting tribute to an innovative and deserving artist.