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Billy Bang
Vietnam: Reflections
(Justin Time)

by David Dupont
4 July 2005

Billy Bang’s Vietnam: Reflections is a follow-up to the violinist’s well-regarded 2001 release, the cathartic Vietnam: The Aftermath. In the original session, he sought—with some success apparently—to exorcise the demons spawned by his tour of duty in the Vietnam War. Seeking the support of several other veterans, including trumpeter Ted Daniel, drummer Michael Carvin, percussionist Ron Brown, and conductor Butch Morris (all of whom return here), he fashioned a set of original compositions informed by his memories of being in that country.

Reflections picks up the story where Aftermath left off, as Bang, and by extension others of his generation, come to grips with the reality of Vietnam as something more, something richer, than a battlefield. Songs such as “Lock & Load”, a charging post-bop tune shaped around a pentatonic figure, feature the kind of filtered aural memory blended with the music of the time before Bang left to serve and that which greeted him when he returned.

But Bang has also enlisted the help of two Vietnamese musicians, vocalist Co Boi Nguyen and Nhan Thanh Ngo on the traditional Vietnamese dulcimer, the dan tranh. They perform three folk tunes that offer a complexity and nuance that Bang’s own melodic evocations lack. But Bang’s own tunes do inspire some fervent blowing from his cast, including a guest spot from Henry Threadgill on flute on the title tune. Daniel and alto saxophonist James Spaulding also make strong statements and pianist John Hicks’ bluesy eloquence serves as an American counterpoint to the ethereal sounds of the Vietnamese musicians.

The Vietnamese sounds stand apart from the jazz at first. The second track “Ru Con” introduces them in a trio with Bang’s pizzicato violin meshing with the dan trahn to create a lacy underpinning to Co Boi’s haunting voice. “Ly Nua O” adds drums and percussion for a galloping feel. Bang also essays his own version of the traditional ballad “Doi Moi”, which has an Ellingtonian perfume to it, as does “Waltz of the Water Puppets”, on which Bang’s bowing has rich overtones of American folk fiddling. With these the listener senses Bang moving toward resolution. The promise, both musical and philosophical, of the date is most realized in “Reconciliation”, where conductor Morris swirls the lyricism of the Vietnamese musicians with sounds of the jazz players.

Howard Mandel’s notes refer to Bang’s plan to take the project through the third and final step of traveling to Vietnam to perform with musicians there, including some of his contemporaries who fought as well. Such a project would be a fulfilling, and much anticipated, culmination of Bang’s journey toward understanding.
- ONE FINAL NOTE


with violinist Billy Bang and
baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett
The Tractor Tavern
April 4 at 8 P.M.

Earshot presents three of the most prominent voices in improvised music. One listen to Kahil El’Zabar’s Tri-Factor and you know that modern jazz continues to offer the spirit and risk that has captivated music lovers for decades. El’Zabar is joined in this unit by violinist Billy Bang, and multi-instrumentalist Hamiet Bluiett.

Percussionist El’Zabar is a resident in Chicago’s perpetually flourishing jazz community. Soon after graduating from the school of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in the mid-1970s, he formed the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble with tenor saxophonist Edward Wilkerson, Jr. As more musicians were added through the years to that unit, El’Zabar developed relationships with players from the New York and St. Louis music scenes. He has since recorded and performed with a multitude of talents, like, for example, David Murray, Joseph Bowie and Pharaoh Sanders. His output on the Delmark label in recent years is impressive. The Ritual Trio, with reedist Ari Brown and bassist Malachi Favors, is a solid waypoint in the post-Coltrane continuum. With Spirits Entering (Delmark, 2001), an exceptional duo record with violinist and fellow Tri-Factorite Billy Bang, El’Zabar seeks to explore controlled, yet unconventional areas of the sound palette.

Bang is a remarkably talented musician, best known for his work in the String Trio of New York, with John Lindberg and James Emery. As a youngster, he chose to set aside his first instrument, the violin, in order to pursue drumming. But he returned to violin in his late ’20s, at a time when Leroy Jenkins and Ornette Coleman not only made the instrument cool again, but were creating an entirely new vocabulary for its use. Bang’s musical language and ideologies, like those of Bluiett and El’Zabar, owe much to organized musical/cultural communities, such as the AACM and the Black Artists Group (BAG). He is a student of a school that emphasizes the dynamics that can be pulled from the collective, while searing forward with an independant voice. Valve No. 10, a sleeper title from the Soul Note catalog, is perhaps Bang’s most intriguing recording as a leader. The controlled agitation on the album is remarkable, and Bang — in the company of much-underrecognized saxophonist Frank Lowe — proves the violin to be a natural complement to reeds in small ensembles.

Tri-Factor’s music furthers the risk-taking tradition. With El’Zabar and Bang, the music’s bass register is piloted by a BAG alumnus, and St. Louis staple, Hamiet Bluiett. A huge force in free improvised music, Bluiett is possibly the most accomplished baritone saxophonist of the past 30 years, having performed with Sam Rivers, Oliver Lake, Arthur Blythe, and Gil Evans, among others. His sparring and harmonizing with Julius Hemphill on Coon Bid’ness (Black Lion, 1975) made the record one of the preeminent statements of its time in improvised music. A gutsy improviser at heart, Bluiett is equally potent with standards and traditional jazz. Fond of the possibilities of music without the anchor of a rhythm section, Bluiett is a founder of the accomplished World Saxophone Quartet (formed in 1976 with David Murray, Oliver Lake, and Julius Hemphill). He is a master of the most challenging registers on all of his instruments, and is a sought-after component in many ensembles for his practical approach to the saxophone.

On Tri-Factor’s The Power (CIMP, 1999) Bluiett sheathes his preferred baritone sax in favor of the deeper tones of both bass and contrabass saxophones. The record offers a lexicon of forms, all propelled by El’Zabar’s unique rhythmic style and penchant for African beats. Bang’s extensive violin technique gives the music much of its color, while Bluiett maintains a catchy expressiveness that is both daring and true to jazz lineage. The trio was somewhat discouraged during the making of this record, as a result of setbacks and technicalities in the studio and engineering process. Yet it is difficult to imagine any label but CIMP tackling the capture of this music. The label is renowned — and a recipient of varied criticisms — for its recording philosophies and practices. Their recordings are virtually devoid of filtering or other editorial tweaks during mastering, which can produce a range of results, depending on the observer. In the case of The Power, the raw, sterile acoustics provided in the CIMP sound arena serve the music well. The eccentric instrumentation works on all levels — Bluiett’s sax sound is absolutely alive, and Bang’s violin is more gentle than bright, especially when providing melodic support.

But the glue to the trio is undoubtedly the crafty grooves of El’Zabar. Each musician contributes original material to the music, which overflows with captivating melodies, framed by inventive rhythmic patterns that evolve from the fringes of t - Earshot Jazz Monthly Publication


By Lisa Boucher (Reviewer)
Vietnam: The Aftermath
Billy Bang
Justin Time Records, 2001 (www.justin-time.com)

Over the past 26 years, jazz fiddler Billy Bang's hard-edged tone, soulful sense of swing and expressive style have enhanced over two dozen albums by top names in a variety of genres, from the blistering funk of Bootsy Collins to the intergalactic uproar of Sun Ra.

Drafted into the army following graduation, Billy was sent to Vietnam, an experience that profoundly affected his life. Returning home and radicalized, Billy became active in the anti-war movement, and by the late 60s had returned to music.

This recording is Billy's attempt to put into music his Vietnam experience. This is powerful, intense music made by premier musicians, most of whom happened to experience the war in Vietnam firsthand. Without words, with only sound, they manage to capture an intensity that cannot be expressed in mere words.

In the album's liner notes, Billy says:
For decades, I've lived constantly with my unwillingness to deliberately conjure up the pain of these experiences. At night, I would experience severe nightmares of death and destruction, and during the day, a kind of undefined ambiguous daydream. By allowing these awkward and unfathomable feelings to lie dormant in some deep dark place, I was able to tolerate my frankly vegetative way of living. It was preferable somehow - and safer - to let these monstrous thoughts embedded in my unconscious to remain in that state ­- inactive. This was the sad state of my life, which made it easy for me to seek an artificial comfort in drinking and drugs ...

... My immediate concerns were whether or not I was in fact strong and courageous enough to accept this challenge. The possibility of getting rid of the dark side that forever haunted me outweighed the pessimistic thoughts I had carried with me all those years. I knew I was faced with the monumental task of transforming my Vietnam experience, and all its attendant emotions, into a solid body of music. The overall sadness of losing close friends in combat is not something that many experience, and to write eloquently of my trials and tribulations, of growing from a boy of nineteen and becoming a man, a soldier, in that God-forsaken war, has been a supreme challenge.

This beautiful, ugly, haunting album is probably the best recording I've heard in years. Combining Asian modes with the vocabulary of American jazz, going from toe-tapping swing to what-in-the-HELL-is-THAT screaming fiddle sounds and back to the comfort zone again, Billy's CD has been in constant rotation on my player ever since it debuted last autumn, and I believe it deserves a good listen.




Lisa Boucher works as a musician in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.
She is also the copy editor for The Veteran (but prefers the term "text wrangler").
- VVAW


Violinist makes peace with his Southeast Asian experience

by Francis Davis
August 5th, 2005 4:23 PM

Though a revelation—simultaneously his most ambitious recording and his most straight-ahead—Billy Bang's Vietnam: The Aftermath (2002) told only half the story: It surveyed the Asian influences that came into jazz concurrent with Vietnam but limited itself to the American point of view. The most affecting cuts on the sequel are those where scrappy, outward-bound fiddler (and Vietnam vet) Bang interacts with Co Boi Nguyen's voice and Nhan Thanh Ngo's dan tranh (Vietnamese dulcimer). Vietnam: Reflections has plenty else to recommend it. Nothing Bang has done prepares you for his keening balladry on "Doi Moi" and "Waltz of the Water Puppets," both derived from traditional Vietnamese material. Altoist and flutist James Spaulding isn't heard nearly enough these days, nor is trumpeter Ted Daniel—both are in top form here, and Spaulding's quote from "Moody's Mood for Love" on "Lock 'n' Load" makes sense emotionally as well as musically. Pianist John Hicks solos and comps with his customary sparkle. But I keep being drawn to the tracks with Nguyen and Ngo—Westerners now, which means the graceful "Ly Ngua O" is as much a memory song for them as it is for Bang. - The Village Voice


Discography

-Vietnam : Reflections - CD / 2005
-Vietnam - The Aftermath - CD / 2001
-Big Bang Theory - CD / 2000
-Bang On!
-Spirits Entering by Kahil El'Zabar and Billy Bang
-Live At Carlos 1 (1993)
-Valve, No. 10 by Billy Bang (1993)
-Live at the River East Art Center by Kahil El'Zabar's -Ritual Trio and Billy Bang

-Tribute to Stuff Smith by Sun Ra and Billy Bang (1994)

-Invitation by Billy Bang
-Above & Beyond: Evening in Grand Rapids by Billy Quintet Bang (2007)

-The Fire From Within by Billy Bang (1994)
-Rainbow Gladiator by Billy Bang (1983)

Photos

Bio

Billy Bang has long been a cult figure in the jazz world. His unique style and instrument of choice, a violin, have brought him to play with such renowned legends as Sun Ra, Don Cherry, Marilyn Crispell and the late John Hicks. This new CD is a concept based on his experiences in Vietnam and features a group of Vietnam veterans, with a portion of the proceeds going to the Veteran’s Quality of Life Access Network. VIETNAM the Aftermath is a combination of Bang’s incredible prowess mixed with Asian influences to create a soundscape of the foot soldier’s experience. It’s anger, despair and tragedy that sometimes turns on the funk. This music is for adventurous music fans searching for something new. (Trevor MacLaren)

Billy Bang and his violin unveil a musical soul owing as much to Stuff Smith as to John Coltrane, while displaying the passionate lyricism of one of today's most dynamic improvisors. With more than 15 albums under his own leadership, nearly a dozen more in co-led endeavors, and five more with the String Trio of New York. Billy Bang is one of the more prolific and original members of the progressive scene. There is in the quality of Billy's playing a sense of studied urgency, humor and a craftsmanship that make a violin come alive. From All About Jazz

Relocating to Berlin in 1996 where he lived until 2000, Bang criss-crossed the Atlantic frequently, performing all over Europe and doing five tours through the South and Midwest with percussionist Abbey Rader, three of which included tenor man Frank Lowe. He also began a regular working relationship with percussionist Kahil El'Zabar in 1996, performing in duet, and sometimes as a trio with esteemed Art Ensemble of Chicago co-founder and bassist Malachi Favors Maghostut. Billy has just returned from Vietnam, where he was involved in a documentary and produced his latest CD which will go on sale in another month.

When Billy Bang plays, not a minute goes by before the audience is tapping their foot and ready to dance and on the more soulful souls, you are not ready for him to stop.