Billy Bang: Vietnam: Reflections

Robert R. Calder

Love of beauty, use of Vietnamese musical ideas for hard bop themes that sustain high order lyrical improvisations; and performances of Vietnamese music. Impressive; deeply moving.

Billy Bang

Vietnam: Reflections

Label: Justin Time
US Release Date: 2005-05-10
UK Release Date: 2005-06-13
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This is extraordinarily different from the last Billy Bang set I had for review, a free set by the bassist William Parker's trio.

Here Curtis Lundy's bass opens on a distinguished phrase, John Hicks comes in well up to form, with drums and percussion, and the inspired and dancing east Asian theme is beautifully harmonised: more sublime bop than hard bop. Actually this happens on the three main and straightforward jazz performances on this set, and there is an interest in the way remarkable performances like these begin and come together.

On the opener, Bang solos without the droop in pitch which sometimes afflicts him, and the flautist's joyous attack as far from James Galway or Jean-Pierre Rampal as is Bang from Hilary Hahn. Hicks' chording is resourceful right through and beneath the Vietnam vet Ted Daniel's trumpet solo, and his own solo's full of interest. The arrangement at the end is a delight like the rest of this track.

Bang opens the Vietnamese "Ru Con" playing alone, and after Nhan Thanh Ngo has joined in on dan tran (a Vietnamese dulcimer), Co Boi Nguyen sings. She's a Vietnamese whose main musical activities are European, and fits perfectly.

Again opened by Lundy, "Lock and Load" is another Vietnamese-based theme with Hicks and drums and percussion exemplary. The medium-paced theme's distinctive, the ensemble arrangement coloured quite differently from the opener, and a real dance rhythm has got going by the time Daniel takes a second breath on his trumpet solo, which is quiet with some slurring of notes and a few gentle flares. James Spaulding's entry on alto is bright, but his playing darkens toward the more shadow-hued, in comes Hicks to work toward an uplift. The man's a giant pianist, not in physical dimensions but in an encompassing command which makes one wonder how anybody else could have done all he does here. The rhythm contributes greatly to Bang's extended solo. Other than the double-time skipping rhythm and eastern accent, the music is somewhat reminiscent of things Miles Davis was playing just before Bang was drafted for service in S.E. Asia.

"Ly Ngua O", the second Vietnamese vocal performance, has drums and percussion and some tuneful bowing by Bang, with Nhan Thanh Ngo coming in at the end.

Bang opens "Doi Moi" playing pretty; the flute enters for a short duo passage and then Bang solos in a style with elements of Euro-American folk fiddle and Vietnamese harmonies. This isn't a case of Bang going Vietnamese: aptly to the intentions of the music, his playing has attained to a depth and completeness I don't remember before. It all seems a resolution of just his own playing. Hicks is (say it again) magnificent, and when Lundy's bass has come to the fore he plays with real tenderness, softly over very responsive accompaniment. Bang reprises at length,

"Reconciliation 1" was, it seems, composed by Butch Morris, not in the common sense of putting notes and phrases together but in coordinating improvised passages and interactions between the respective musicians. Conducting without a score was Toscanini's proud boast, but his musicians had scores!

The performance opens combining dan tranh with percussion and voice, low and somewhat moaning, in a prologue to Bang's entry with Hicks, the Vietnamese instrument playing along and Co Boi Nguyen joining in further vocalise with the wind. For a while it's dan tranh with piano, bass, and percussion, then a figure on violin and trumpet with Hicks purling liquidly before the vocalise resumes -- and the horns resume upbeat. The effect is complex and logical, very nicely interestingly unusual.

"Waltz of the Water Puppets" opens with fiddle and flute over rhythm, but out of tempo, very slow. Then there's the flute over slow and varied chiming chords on piano, and almost Irish-sounding fiddle. After Hicks' solo flute and violin play out the performance in duo.

This is a set of incredible sensitivity; the musicians have things to say and are aware and appreciative each of the others.

After a final song by the two Vietnamese with Bang, "Reconciliation 2" has a handsome upbeat intro from Lundy, Hicks and the percussion and a trumpet-forward ensemble passage on this Vietnamese-based theme. The Eastern presence in Bang's solo is plain, but the swing and propulsion considerable, building up a fair head of steam but never loud. Ted Daniel makes a lot of use of space in his economical trumpet solo, expressing rather feeling than a lot of notes or breath, while the rhythm maintains momentum, Hicks is the foundation, Lundy the power source. An exemplary drummer throughout, abetted by the percussionist Ron Brown, Michael Carvin here has a solo ranging in reference from eastern chime to a military but not aggressive beat, marching home as trumpet and violin come in for the end in peaceful triumph. Other than Hicks and Lundy and the two Vietnamese, this is a band of vets, thus of men who had the heavy haul of so many survivors. They seem to have captured something of the Vietnam the late James Cameron, wonderful writer, remembered from before the fire and slaughter, and in spite of the appalling French regimen. While this is a sequel to Bang's earlier CD of music of coming to some terms with the war-darkness in his life, the values enunciated commend it highly. For ballad playing on jazz violin in the line of Stuff Smith, "Doi Moi" is a summit of achievement on which Hicks and Lundy also excel.



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