12 October 2006

Enthusiasms (3): Billy Bang

A short while ago the MacArthur Foundation announced its annual list of fellows. Among the recipients was jazz violinist Regina Carter. The Foundation cited Carter for "marrying conservatory training with a broad range of eclectic influences to invent a modern repertoire for the violin in contemporary and improvisational music." When I read this, I was, to say the least, a bit surprised. Without wishing to in any way call into question Regina Carter's talent or hard work or creativity, this citation is simply false, at least insofar as it attributes considerably more "invention" to Ms. Carter than she herself surely would claim.

There is, after all, a venerable lineage of violinists in jazz, including such old timers as Stuff Smith, Joe Venuti and Stephane Grappelli. And, of course, Ray Nance played violin sometimes for the Duke Ellington Orchestra. One might complain that such traditional contributions do not really fall within the catergory of "contemporary and improvisational music." But even there, one might point to Leory Jenkins as well as the fellow whom this post actually is about - Billy Bang.

I had listened to Billy Bang occasionally but started to pay more attention over the course of several years because he appeared fairly regularly at shows put on here in Rochester at The Bop Shop. In particular, he appeared a couple of times with the wonderful percussionist Kahil El'Zabar. You can hear their collaboration on Spirits Entering (Delmark 2001)

Bang has been a stalwart on the avant garde jazz scene for decades. More recently, he has received great press (e.g., [1] [2] [3] [4] ) for two recordings that represent a personal reckoning with his experience as an infantryman in Vietnam. Both records, Vietnam: The Aftermath (2001) and Vietnam: Reflections (2005) were recorded for the Montreal-based Justin Time label.

Most of the musicians on both discs are also Vietnam veterans. And on the second recording, Bang also collaborates with a Vietnamese vocalist and musician.

You can find an extended interview (2003) with Bill Bang here. He lacks the conservatory training that Regina Carter and others have received. But he is a truly wonderful, creative musician. I had the pleasure of hearing him play once again this evening. I urge you to catch him if you have a chance; there is a schedule of his larger upcoming shows on the web page I link to above. In the show tonight Bang and his excellent quartet played mainly compositions from the Vietnam records, but he also played others from a forthcoming CD on the TUM label. On one number in particular - "At Play In The Fields Of The Lord" - he performed a solo that left little doubt that, like jazz itself, the effort to "invent" a repertoire for jazz violin is a collective undertaking.


PS: Added 10/13/06 - I forgot to mention that the other members of Bang's current quartet are Andrew Bemkey (piano), Todd Nicholson (bass), Newman Taylor Baker (drums).

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was amazed to read your comment regarding Regina Carter. I was thinking the same thing myself. I am not attempting to diminish Miss Carter or her extraordinary gift. But while performing at Lincoln Center in April with the Barry Harris ensemble, Regina Carter opened. All night long I had a hankering for Billy Bang. With his take no prisoners approach to music, his ear for beauty and his inovative composing skills, he has for me, set a new level for jazz violin.

27 October, 2006 18:29  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder how the MacArthur folks decide.....do they accept suggestions?

04 December, 2007 18:40  

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