Billy Bang, 1947-2011

The world lost a deep soul and musical master last month, with the passing of violinist and composer Billy Bang. Even though we could see this day coming, following the announcement at last year’s Vision Festival that Bang was suffering from lung cancer, the news hit us hard and the subsequent funk has been difficult to shake.

As we have in the past, we dealt with this feeling by diving in to the work. With an invaluable assist from George Scala, whose rich Billy Bang collection was the source for the tunes that follow, we’ve compiled a playlist that ranges widely across Bang’s oeuvre. We’re highlighting rarities that you might not otherwise come across. The tracks focus partly on the key sideman role he played in various ensembles, showing off his playing in a wide variety of moods and contexts.

Like Sirone, another recently departed string man, Billy Bang had a stirring effect on just about every session he attended — whether his own, as a leader, or whether as sideman, a frequent occurrence. He was held in extremely high esteem by his peers. Speaking of sidemen, it’s notable that Sun Ra performed on Bang’s Tribute to Stuff Smith. Ra didn’t perform on other sessions for hardly anyone. And in the documentary All the Notes, Cecil Taylor is shown going to check out Bang play in Brooklyn, rhapsodizing about the man’s music.

Speaking of the music…

Billy Bang
Changing Seasons
Bellows : 1980

BB, violin; William Parker, bass; Toshi Tsuchitori, percussion.

Some prime middle period Bang. The wild card here is drummer Toshi Tsuchitori — not exactly a household name. However, he studied with Milford Graves in the 1970s, so it’s not like he didn’t come recommended.

Bang is very much the leader here, confidently probing the abstract outlines of this tune. Tsuchitori provides varied, economical support, while Parker mostly keeps things on an even keel and moving forward. A great album, and one that deserves greater circulation. (We should get a stamp made…) The synchronized ending puts an emphatic exclamation point at the close of this statement.

The Jazz Doctors
Intensive Care
Cadillac : 1983

BB, violin; Frank Lowe, tenor sax; Donald Rafael Garrett, bass; Denis Charles, drums.

An extremely strong and grooving track from a one-off collective effort, on British indie Cadillac. Though the Jazz Doctors never became a working band, or recorded anything else with this lineup, saxophonist Frank Lowe and Bang had by the 1970s already embarked on a lifelong working relationship. And drummer Denis Charles would become Bang’s go-to drummer during the 1980s.

The sympatico rapport is instantly apparent, with Lowe and Bang mining much of the same sonic range. “Spooning” has a subtle sense of swing, as well as a classical feel in its stately melody and repetitions. Bang was known for his raw and emotive solos, but this track showcases his ravishing and understated side. He could also stir listeners with his elegance.

Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society
Eye on You
About Time : 1980

BB, violin; Ronald Shannon Jackson, drums; Byard Lancaster, alto sax; Charles Brackeen, tenor sax; Vernon Reid, guitar; Bern Nix, guitar, Melvin Gibbs, bass; Erasto Vasconcelos, percussion.

Ronald Shannon Jackson’s early albums comprise some of the most important and overlooked music of the 1980s. We’ve done posts on several of his early efforts, but hadn’t gotten to his knockout debut.  “Theme for a Prince” eschews the band’s usual mix of jazz, funk, and punk in favor of a expertly composed ballad that’s both tender and cutting. It’s a rose held in the teeth that quickly draws blood.

Bang’s keening violin is the track’s secret weapon. In counterpoint to Vernon Reid’s patiently plucking guitar, he gently and lovingly eviscerates the song’s contemplative mood. He delivers beauty without bathos.

The Frank Lowe Orchestra
Lowe & Behold
Musicworks : 1977

BB, violin; FL, tenor sax, arr.; Joseph Bowie, trombone; Butch Morris, cornet; Arthur Williams, trumpet; Polly Bradfield, violin; Eugene Chadbourne, guitar; John Lindberg, bass; Phillip Wilson, drums; John Zorn, alto sax; Peter Kuhn, clarinet, bass clarinet.

This track comes from Bang’s first album with Frank Lowe. As Lowe writes in the album’s liners, “Heavy Drama” is “my Hollywood or Broadway theatrical fantasy revealed. Suspense thrillers, Soap Opera, etc. all have their place within this composition.” Lowe also comments on the “sinister duet” between Zorn and Bang early on.

Despite the title, and pace Lowe’s comments, this is not a blowing tune but a patient uncorking of energy. (Lowe’s Hollywood seems a much more interesting place than the actual version.) Open, exploratory, with different alliances and groups forming over the course of the tune’s twelve minutes, “Heavy Drama” allows Bang the freedom to scrawl lines of notes across the traffic, scrabbling and plucking his way through the fantasy.

This is a fascinating ensemble: Note the inclusion of a young John Zorn and Eugene Chadbourne, alongside Butch Morris and Phillip Wilson! Ah, New York in the 1970s.

Memory Serves
Celluloid : 1981

BB, violin; Sonny Sharrock, guitar; Fred Frith, guitar, violin, vibes; Henry Threadgill; alto sax; George Lewis, trombone; Olu Dara, trumpet; Charles K. Noyes, drums, percussion; Fred Maher, drums, guitar, percussion; Bill Laswell, bass; Michael Beinhorn, synth, tapes, radio, guitar, drums, vocals. [Note: This is the collective personnel listing for the album and may not represent this track]

We’re Bill Laswell agnostics but make no mistake: the man could line up some talent. The early Material albums were their best and “Upriver” is a metallic funk nugget that shows off Bang’s violin playing in a more commercial context. Once you move beyond the slick production, there is plenty to chew on here — bent Americana, strange sonics, wailing guitar, and almost Reichian repetition from Bang.

Needless to say, the musicianship is top-notch. Bang’s solo shreds while also adding a country tinge that he almost immediately undercuts. His violin is the least processed sound on the song, seemingly sitting on top of the band, and allows the tune to expand beyond what would otherwise be a relatively flat-sounding dance romp. Danceable jazz; ah, New York in the 1980s.

Billy Bang/A. R. Penck
London Underground with Billi
[privately issued] : c. 1984

BB, violin; A. R. Penck, piano, drums.

Here is a great example of Bang’s playing and a fitting end to our tribute. This duo cut lets Bang shine; he’s completely unfettered, fiery, soaring, dissonant at times but with a lyrical punch. Penck’s free drumming ably underpin the action, but this is Bang’s tune all the way. A virtuoso display of instant composition and direct emotional connection.

Folks might not be familiar with A. R. Penck. A German visual artist, he privately recorded and issued dozens of albums, for which he did all the covers. These releases vary wildly in terms of musical quality, though Penck often kept fast company. He recorded six different times with Bang, as well as (on different occasions) Peter Kowald, Frank Wright, Butch Morris, Frank Lowe, Denis Charles, Jeanne Lee, William Parker, Louis Moholo, etc.

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Fortunately for listeners and fans, much of Bang’s work as a leader remains in print and is readily available. Scala, a long-time fan of Bang’s, particularly recommends The Untitled Gift (originally on Bang’s Anima label; reissued fairly recently), Rainbow Gladiator (Soul Note), and Changing Seasons (see above). Generally speaking, Bang’s output on Black Saint/Soul Note is of a consistently high quality.

A few years ago Tom Hull put together an invaluable Billy Bang Consumer Guide; it’s quite expansive and well worth your time. Utterly trustworthy as an actual guide to purchases.

Hull also links to many of the fine obits that have appeared recently. William Vincent Walker (later Billy Bang) had a fascinating life, from his stint as a soldier in Vietnam onwards. One interesting tidbit that doesn’t often crop up: when he enlisted in the army, they asked for a middle name. He didn’t have one, so on the spot he gave himself the middle name “Vincent.” The reason? He was a fan of famed B-movie horror actor Vincent Price.

There are also a few new releases to come, including a Bang duet with Bill Cole, due from Cole’s label Shadrack (site still in progress as of this writing), and an archival release from NoBusiness featuring Bang’s Survival Ensemble. Small solace, perhaps, but solace nonetheless.

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