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Billy Bang: Da Bang!

Dan McClenaghan By

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The list of prominent jazz violinists is not a long one. Start with Stephane Grappelli and his legendary Hot Club de France swing recordings with gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt. Then there's Stuff Smith and his innovative electrolyzing of the instrument; Joe Venuti; the late Polish firebrand Zbigniew Seifert; and the still-active, post-bop/fusion player Jean-Luc Ponty.

It's a short list, but it's one that's not complete without the name Billy Bang, who passed away in 2011.

Billy Bang—born William Walker in Mobile, Alabama—began his career in New York City's Loft Scene of the early '70s after his conscripted service in Vietnam. Tagged as an avant-garde player, he rose to a higher profile with two recordings influenced by his war experiences: Vietnam: The Aftermath (Justin Time, 2001); and Vietnam: Reflections (Justin Time, 2004).

Though the avant tag may be accurate, Bang's music—over thirty albums as a leader— has always been accessible, and is often quite beautiful in its exuberance while compelling in its rough-hewn folksiness.

Recorded in 2011, Da Bang! was the violinist's last recording before his passing in April of that year. It features the violinist in a quintet setting, sharing frontline duties with trombonist Dick Griffin and covering tunes penned by a trio of influential fellow free jazzers, along with one of his own extended works and—a bit of a surprise—a couple of very familiar jazz standards to close out the show.

The disc opens with the energetic title tune, written by Bang's collaborator in the FAB Trio, drummer Barry Altschul. The violinist plays with his characteristic swagger and verve, bolstered by the boldness of Griffin's trombone. The rhythm team— pianist Andrew Bemkey, bassist Hilliard Greene and drummer Newman Taylor Baker—lock into a groove, allowing the frontline to ride high.

"Guinea," written by trumpeter Don Cherry—alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman's early musical running mate—opens with first a frenetic and searing, but then percussive Bang solo, before shifting into an ensemble of off-kilter swing, the rhythm section giving off bounce and sparkle. Coleman's "Law Years" opens with bassist Greene laying down the melody, leading into Griffin's rough-around-the-edges solo. Bemkey gets his turn too, and proves himself—again and again on this set—to be intense and inventive as a soloist and a perfect accompanist.

The fourteen-minute "Daydream," Bang's lone songwriting credit here, is a meditative gem, opening with a delicately beautiful piano turn before Bang's violin cries in. The leader's playing here is at its most heartfelt and intimate on this gorgeous centerpiece to one of Bang's finest recorded outings.

Bang isn't particularly known for his work with jazz standards, but he closes the set with trumpeter Miles Davis' "All Blues," sounding wistful before shifting into a celebratory mood on saxophonist Sonny Rollins' "St. Thomas." Both tunes are treated with reverence and both of them—and the entire set—brim with Bang's infectious joy of creation.

Track Listing: Da Bang; Guinea; Daydreams; Law Years; All Blues; St Thomas.

Personnel: Billy Bang: violin; Dick Griffin: trombone; Andrew Bemkey: piano; Hilliard Greene: bass; Newman Taylor-Baker: drums.

Title: Da Bang! | Year Released: 2013 | Record Label: TUM Records

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CD/LP/Track Review
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TUM Records
2013

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