Violin, bass and drums: this set includes the second tribute to (one of my heroes) Jimmy Garrison that I’ve seen and, of course, heard on CD in six months. “Sunday Morning Church” opens with Billy Bang meditating over a repeated rhythmic figure, which Garrison’s star pupil, William Parker, continues to generate with progressively more ingenuity under Bang’s continually loosening up variations. The theme is hardly more involved than the rhythm figure. Once that’s established, it fades up, only implied as Bang saws away, to a climax in which he might for all the world be duetting with Hamid Drake. This sort of music does need a scintillating drummer, who is crucial not in laying down a beat but keeping the accents moving.
Then there’s William Parker’s solo, which brings back some of the melodic feel of Garrison in those wondrous trio recordings with Elvin Jones and Joe Farrell, never excelled and more in the jazz mainstream than what we have here—not exactly in the (Col)tranestream but with an added interest as a great pupil’s demonstration of reasons why the four words “great John Coltrane Quartet” always mean to me four men. By no means the least of these was James Garrison, whose trios with Elvin Jones were a revelation. His early death soon thereafter was a devastation.
“Singing Spirits” is dedicated to Charles Mingus and Bang attempts, on the fiddle, some of those contorted, reed-chewing or reed-screwing holyrollerisms which rendered unto the Baptists’ God some music, which, from the 1940s onward, found its way not to Apollo’s service, but the stage of the Apollo theatre. On violin, the allusion’s more “literary” than sheerly musical
“Dust on a White Shirt” has a happy, pretty aspect, Bang becoming only a little overheated briefly in the middle, before the leader’s bass expands into a wholly individual solo. Some male classical instrumental players have as classifiable a voice as any schooled opera singer. This or that (but by no means every) pianist will produce a sound indicating an affinity with, say, the bass, or with the tenor voice. Great jazz bassists likewise: Slam Stewart played high, with less bass resonance. Other men playing the identical dots on the page sound very different—push, swing, move differently. William Parker is a basso profundo, as light and as fleet and as high on the bass as you like, but the resonances extend below the bottom end of any piano. He makes a lovely soft noise, free and easy, doing what he wishes, since Hamid Drake’s his musical Siamese twin.
Billy Bang’s sound comes, at odd times, surprisingly close to what used to be called ‘straight’—a term which used simultaneously to parody and to inflate as a would-be name or description of a European concert style (within which too there was always a lot of variety, having only been dumbed down by a latter-day cosmopolitanism). It’s not just his pizzicato, but some of his more prodigious bowing. Consciously or not, this performance overall does aspire to a condition (at least for the listener) like European concert music. All of a piece it’s like all one piece, variety within unity.
“Urban” is a prestissimo duet between Billy Bang and the perfectly married bass-drums duo, busy-busy (Bartok, Gershwin and Bud Powell provided variously expressionist precedents). Before resumption of the theme, and all the themes here are simple or short, Parker finds musical justification for a passage of sprinting as rapid-noted as Bang in any of the several voices he has here. ‘Holiday for Flowers’ slides between Japanese musical influence (but not oriental character) and something nearly nursery rhyme simple which needs Bang’s oblique shifts off the slight melody. The inspiration was something Parker saw in Japan. I won’t say what because that sort of ‘literary’ reference can too often be a distraction from serious listening. His music may bring back to him the same personal feelings the rest of us feel looking at holiday photos. The listener has a right to expect more, and will find it.
It’s difficult to imagine listening to an enormous, continuous stretch of this music. 40 minutes is right, it’s all one groove and all well worked out here. “Holiday for Flowers”, sixth and last of these compositions, echoes and can be taken for a reprise of the opener and title track. The short first line of the theme of “Scrapbook” lets Bang improvise what seem to be, as much as anything else, extended bridges or modulations between different keys, rhythms, speeds. He does so exactly as long as makes sense, and, when you’ve only forty minutes on a CD, and especially Parker (or Drake-and-Parker) puts so much in, you hear more rather than more of the same. Not a minute too long, or too short. Something to be played twice, quite a number of times.