|Last summer, I had the privilege of once again experiencing Billy Bang in person. At once buoyant, gritty and melodic, his playing evoked 'Bama Swing,' whether the tune was 'Bama' or not. There is in the quality of Billy's playing a sense of studied urgency, humor and a reverence for the fragility and resilience of the wood, string, horsehair and craftsmanship that make a violin come alive. Although I doubt that Bang would be unable to coerce any violin, the energy he is able to generate on this instrument that has struggled so hard for its voice in the jazz arena is simultaneously startling, unnerving and reassuring.
I first encountered Billy Bang on my late night sojourns to hear charanga and pachanga bands (where the violin is a percussive instrument) at supper clubs like the Rainbow Room, where his violin sang, threatening no one. That cannot be said of Bang's bowing or chordal flights towards the talking drum. 'Sweet Georgia Brown,' which I thought was perfected by Stuff Smith, comes alive again with Bang's specific articulation, leading directly to comparisons with horns (Philip Harper, Lee Morgan), woodwinds (Albert Ayler, Arthur Blythe, Hamiet Bluiett), the quick brilliant feet of tap-dancers, (Savion Glover, Mickey Davidson), sand dancers and the image of Lena Horne, in the window, before she turns around to sing. This anticipation, not knowing how a phrase is going to present itself, is particularly true in the Bang composition 'Peaceful Dreams,' where, not unlike Sun Ra (with whom Bang played intermittently over the years), solace can be found in risk. The lyrical qualities Bang is able to draw from this instrument, while persisting in rigorous bowing innovations, allows the sound to hover in the air and over our bodies, not unlike Cecil Taylor's quieter moments and Muhal Richard Abrams raucous seductions of the piano. From Bang's violin comes everything we know about black music and a lot we have yet to learn about rhythm, subtlety and swing. Bang's technical facility in the upper registers of the violin, past the third position, where the neck of the violin is cradled in his hand while his fingers reach eagerly toward the bridge, is evident in his composition 'Spirits Entering'.
On 'Three Faces Of Eve', Bang almost seems to challenge the Latin jazz virtuoso, Alfredo de la Fe, whose skillful fingering and brilliant bowing can make us believe violins spit bullets that not only hum, but shout and take solos before hitting their marks. This soft salsa-inspired piece permits Billy Bang to take on arpeggios as assaults, without losing a keen hold of the beauty of speed in harmony with pianist D.D. Jackson, drummer Ronnie Burrage and bassist Akira Ando. Their careful support of Bang's sometimes-sensual approach to the instrument is never intrusive. Bang's pizzicato on 'Yesterdays' hints at the miracles he is capable of with his left hand, his fingers taunting the speed of sound, if not of light. In 'Don's Dream,' Bang falls back on the keys and the weight of southern work songs before venturing into a melodic riff that may mislead those who think Bang loses control of the bow when playing passionately.
To those people, I say Billy Bang can play circles around whatever he last did, while jumping up and down on one foot, which he sometimes does with his spats, silk forties suits and bowler hats. I've even seen Billy Bang mistake himself for a Senegalese acrobat, violin in hand, and never miss a note, a beat or an insinuation of what's possible with his amazing instrument. We don't even know what is possible. But I can assure you, even if he's at a reunion of The Heliocentric Arkestra, Peter Pan hat, Robin Hood cape and all, Billy Bang cannot be dismissed. The violin, with all its preconceptions, comes knock, knock, knockin' on our imaginations, and the legacy of our people doesn't even ask who's there. It's just Bang. Billy, that is.