FAB: Fonda/Altschul/Bang: Transforming the Space (2003)
Although each of these three players is at the peak of a relatively mountainous career, the playing of Billy Bang has simply exploded. The violinist has been active as a leader since the late '70s, but in the last few years it seems he has come back with a vengeance, most notably on Vietnam: The Aftermath (Justin Time, 2001) and William Parker's Scrapbook (Thirsty Ear, 2003). There's no need to enumerate his ample credentials in the out-jazz world, but there are very few violinists out there today who can combine soul, search, and fire in the same natural way as Bang.
Seeing as how Billy Bang is the "melody" player in this trio, his voice quite frequently rises to the top. But Joe Fonda is not a bassist to sit idly by, and Barry Altschul also takes plenty of opportunities to shape the course of the trio's path. One might expect more high-end (and arco) interaction between the two string players, but Fonda tends to hang on the lower end of his instrument, using those deep notes to complement the violin's often piercing tone and the drums' sparkly textures. A few exceptions, of course.
Transforming the Space provides yet more evidence that Fonda has traveled far beyond the usual roles of his instrument, though he does so in a way that emphasizes tone over overtone, unlike most of his contemporaries in the free jazz world today. Perhaps that reflects his tenure with Anthony Braxton, who personally is quite fond of "incorrect" playing but who also places great emphasis on the structural aspects of his music. The same holds true for Altschul, another Braxton vet whose playing tends to be quite melodic and ceaselessly inventive.
But in the end it's Bang who turns this record into a near-masterpiece. "Song For My Mother" gets started rather spontaneously with some bird-like scratching and tinkling, only to be interrupted by a flighty series of cadences from the violinist. It turns pensive and the soulful aspect of Bang's playing warms things up dramatically. Over the course of the next 16 minutes (rather gluttonous, but not excessive), the music takes its share of twists and turns, but it seems like Billy Bang is always riding at the cusp. Military beats cut in a few minutes later, and once you've ridden out the suspense Bang waxes naked and emotional. "The Softness of Light" similarly benefits from a deliberately paced warmth. It's hard to avoid getting sucked in.
It seems that FAB is a democracy more than anything else, and that means there is no single star, leader, or composer. Without the particular combination of talent and experience each of these articulate players brings to this table, the risks involved would almost certainly have yielded total disaster. But somehow, magically, this hour of music ends up open, expansive, and hearty.
Track Listing: Be Out S'Cool; The Softness of Light; For Papa, Jo, Klook & Philly Too; Tales from Da Bronx; Song for My Mother; Coligno Battatta.
Personnel: Joe Fonda: bass; Barry Altschul: drums; Billy Bang: violin.