Right around the time I was putting the finishing touches on my review of the 2011 collaboration between Billy Bang and Bill Cole, Mr. Bang breathed his last. After playing a gig in Helsinki with his at-the-time present group, the renowned jazz violinist flew home to New York and had to check into a hospital where he eventually died from liver cancer. The final song of the set that night in Finland was “St. Thomas”, a piece of jazz comfort food for the post-bop age if there ever was one. Da Bang!, a posthumous first for Billy Bang, concludes with the same song. Do you know what the difference is between a sad farewell and going out on a happy high note? It’s Billy Bang playing “All Blues” and “St. Thomas”, that’s what. To listen to Da Bang! while thinking about death isn’t an act of moping. It’s reflection, the satisfaction that comes with a life well lived and a career worth preserving for the next generation.
If we want to give Billy Bang the proper sendup, let’s go back to our painful mid-century era. Born in Alabama and raised in Harlem, Bang was drafted into the Vietnam war, but not before getting the music bug planted into his ear. After his tour of duty was over, Bang returned home with a distaste for his government’s involvement in Southeast Asia. He fell into several revolutionary factions, and one even wanted to tap his knowledge of army weapons so that they may properly arm themselves. At one particular pawn shop visit, Bang found himself at a crossroads when he saw violins on the wall. Would he help buy guns for antiwar activists (strange, I know) or follow the music? The answer should be obvious by this point, a choice that sustained his life until the age of 63. The choice to purchase that violin led him to play alongside many greats like Sun Ra and Fred Anderson. It wasn’t long before he was calling the shots in his own ensembles, including the String Trio of New York. The number of lions in the field of jazz violin were relatively few (relative to, say, the saxophone), but Bang worked his way to the top echelon of them right alongside Leroy Jenkins and Jean-Luc Ponty.
Da Bang! has it all. It has standards that swing, front parlor ruminations, and explosively played material that only a free-jazz vet like Bang would take into consideration; “Guinea” by Don Cherry, “Law Years” by Ornette Coleman, and a Barry Altschul original written just for the violinist himself, “Da Bang”. Pianist Andrew Bemkey is a class ying to Bang’s restless yang. And the Coleman cover demonstrates that trombonist Dick Griffin would probably make a good album just with Bang’s rhythm section of Hilliard Greene on bass and Newman Taylor-Baker on drums. Each song forges an organic path that can’t be forged by a chart alone.
The album and Bang himself come to rest on the Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins covers. The final send off is not a tearful goodbye, but a hardened grin that might as well be telling you “that’s all folks!” Billy Bang will be missed, but be grateful that the likes of Prayer for Peace and Da Bang! will be sticking around for much, much longer.
// Notes from the Road
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