Violinist Billy Bang is a marvelous bridge from early jazz - his strong influence and tribute subject Stuff Smith - to the most cutting-edge innovations of the avant-garde. His violin playing is astonishingly versatile, encompassing the lyricism of classical playing, a considerable rhythmic sense, and a flair for the dramatic that makes his solos consistently listenable and rewarding.
Born in 1947 in Alabama, Bang grew up in New York City and started violin early. Why the violin? "I was small," he explains. "So they gave me the violin. That's all it was based on, basically." He gave it up after awhile, "because I didn't even like carrying it around my neighborhood. All my friends were going to drumming classes and they were going to play the saxophones and stuff. So I said, 'What the hell is going on? Why me?' I was a little angry, actually."
Hearing Leroy Jenkins, the great "free jazz" violinist who played an integral role in the AACM, led him back to the violin in the late Sixties. "I heard Leroy playing the violin in a different context, other than the European context of violin playing. And I decided to maybe try and pick it back up again." Another influence was the violin of Ornette Coleman. "Even before I heard Leroy, I heard Ornette on violin. I didn't know what the hell was going on, you know. I heard it and it was just completely different to me, that particular style. Consequently, that Ornette style influenced me more. He influenced me to learn something from that style he was playing."
Bang has played a series of innovative solo concerts that show off the full range of his abilities: by turns melodic, bluesy, passionate and swinging. He has also been leader of the String Trio of New York and a member of Ronald Shannon Jackson's Decoding Society and Sonny Sharrock's Material.
Live, Billy Bang is an engaging presence. He's even been known to tell stories and banter with the crowd - notably on his solo release Commandment
, a series of compositions and improvisations inspired by the sculptures of Alain Kirili. The fascination of this document comes not only with Bang's bold sonic approximations of the sculptures' textural and spatial elements; the presentation is also audibly shaped and informed by the audience's reaction to and interaction with Bang as he plays.
Bang's work with jazz groups is no less interesting. His passionate lyricism and infectious melodicism combined with the seriousness of purpose and intensity of the free players makes his solos always worth hearing, and hearing again.
Billy Bang himself deserves to be heard more than he has been.
Unsung Reviews by Robert Spencer