Violinist Billy Bang, now in his sixth decade, has had a lot of powerful experiences throughout his life. When he was 19, he headed off to Vietnam for over a year of service, and then returned to join the anti-war movement. His musical experiences after that point drew him close to some of the most progressive players in the the free jazz movement. But not content to stay rooted in one place, he experimented with free funk, the avant-garde, and a Laswell Material project, before spending ten years with the Sun Ra Arkestra. All this experience comes to bear on Vietnam: The Aftermath, which pursues an eclectic blend of Eastern musics, open improvisation, funk and swing. Five of the members of this septet also served in the military, which adds significant depth to the group's approach to this most unusual theme.
Just as often as not, these pieces feature a stark Eastern melody and then evolve through interactive group improvisation. The titles bear interest, but they do not necessarily reflect the spirit of the respective tunes. "TET Offensive," for example, is a forward-looking swinging piece that conveys far more celebration than aggression. "Tunnel Rat" runs from delicate pizzicato melody straight into pure swinging abandon. While his sidemen seize opportune moments to lend a personal voice (and John Hicks deserves ample credit for his versatile work on the piano), it's Bang's efforts on the violin that really glue the group together. One can only wonder what role conductor Butch Morris played in the construction and development of these tunes, but it's safe to say that he must have had some influence fitting all these players together into a seamless whole.
The closer of Vietnam, "Saigon Funk," takes the band on home with a crisp funk groove and punchy instrumental work on top. It's a fitting closer for a broad-spectrum record with so much variety and density: offering a chance to breathe, dance, and shrug off the serious music that came before. Vietnam defies categorization, which automatically makes it a disc worth investigation. With Bang at the helm, you can be assured that there are no lapses into cliche or convention, only the unfolding of ideas created in the moment. This 54-year old still has a lot of Bang in him, and he's not afraid to light the fuse.