Vision Festival X - Day Five, June 18, 2005 (Part 2)
Billy Bang Quartet
Bang's quartet this penultimate evening of the tenth Vision Festival was part of an ongoing strand of his work exorcising the ghosts of his experiences as a combat veteran in the Vietnam war. To this end he has recorded and appeared with Vietnamese musicians alongside his regular associates. Tonight he was accompanied by Nhan Thanh Ngo on dan tranh (a sixteen string Vietnamese zither), Todd Nicholson on bass and Shoji Hano on drums. Although there was some overlap in personnel with a show I caught in Paris earlier this year, the bravura performance this evening was simply on a different plane. Never less than professional and entertaining in Paris, that set was surpassed by the addition of spontaneity, excitement and passion to the musical invention.
By way of introduction, Bang explained "I come here to challenge myself. We've never played together prior to this moment. Bang announced the long opening piece as "IWS, meaning Improvisation With Structure.
A meditative oriental feel held sway in a gradual start. Tinkling cymbals were punctuated by wallops on the snare and sparse resonant notes plucked on the dan tranh, all underpinned by a bass drone. The suspense was broken by Bang, laying down an ethereal legato line on his violin, then joining in a beautiful unison reverie with dan tranh. Bang's creative juices started to flow, and he swayed and dipped as he bowed , projecting an irrepressible joie de vivre. The improvisation developed through a series of duets, ensembles and solos, directed with compositional sensitivity in the moment by the mercurial Bang, prowling the stage, indicating who should play when.
Hano's Japanese traditional drumming sensibilities brought another layer of intrigue to the overall sound. He interjected thunderous crescendos, crashing down both sticks at once from above, with his head thrown back for emphasis. Nicholson's solid technique and resonant tone were deployed in the service of a fertile imagination, whether setting out a forceful counterpoint to Bang or expounding melodic solo lines. Ngo's dan tranh added an exotic element to Bang's brew, contributing dissonances as well as supporting textures. Part way through the improvisation, Bang stilled the ensemble to leave the dan tranh solo, then orchestrated bass/drum punctuations in support.
Bang skilfully built up the tension by overlaying the gradually intensifying rhythm with pizzicato sequences, before switching back to arco, to release the wave in overdrive, with long rhythmic sweeps and flurries of bouncing and sawing. One ensemble blow out was cut by Bang to leave him bowing in his highest register. Gradually he came down the fret board in scrapes and creaks, all the while maintaining a ferocious staccato rhythmic attack with his bow, before plucking out a riff, picked up by Nicholson and Hano and developed into a funky strut. Smiling, Bang made sure that Ngo also got on the case, and then improvised around it with wild gritty virtuosity. The audience excitement levels went into red at this point. Bang briefly returned to plucking the riff, before the band decrescendoed to silence. A standing ovation and it wasn't even the end of the set!
By way of a closer, Bang picked out a pentatonic stop time vamp, latched onto by Nicholson and then Ngo, for a dan tranh blues. Bang extemporised riotously over the tight collective then shouted "Asian African American Funk! Shit! and introduced the band over the down and dirty rhythm. What a fantastic set! And impossible not to smile afterwards, so infectious was Bang's pleasure at his triumph.
It was a hard act for another violinist to follow, yet that was the task facing Leroy Jenkins, appearing with dancer Felicia Norton, whose collaborations on live music/dance programs began in 1988. Tonight they presented a work entitled "Earth Mysteries . Norton came onto the stage alone, clad in white, holding bells and performed an invocation, rattling the bells in all corners of the space. Jenkins stood at the side of the stage, also in white, intoning a very quiet repeated legato line, without thematic development, as Norton moved gracefully between precariously held poses. Jenkins high wavering legato was echoed by the sweeping movements. For the second section, Jenkins plucked a similarly understated accompaniment against which the lithe and elegant Norton energetically criss-crossed the stage. By the third section, Jenkins had moved to the centre rear of the stage and played an expansive involved introduction with undulating lines before Norton rejoined, picking up the bells and rattling them to all sides in a more joyous revisiting of her opening gambit. A successful union, in which music and dance were integral and either would have been diminished without the other.