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The Boston Phoenix Free Billy

Mr. Bang bangs on.

By Ed Hazell

FEBRUARY 16, 1998:  Conservative commentators on jazz would have you believe that the triumph of the blues, the ecstasy of gospel, and the celebration of swing have been lost in free jazz. They don't listen to enough Billy Bang. Grounded in the bedrock of African-American music, Bang's sonic explorations on violin were a signature of the New York avant-garde jazz world of the '80s. And his nearly complete absence from the realm of recorded music since his 1991 Tribute to Stuff Smith (Soul Note) with Sun Ra has been a major loss. But now he's back with two new releases that rank alongside the best of his earlier work -- a solo album, Commandment (No More Records), and a quartet outing featuring impressive young Canadian pianist D.D. Jackson titled Bang On! (Justin Time).

Born William Walker, Bang first made waves in the early '80s as a founding member of the String Trio of New York, in which his raw sound, anarchic drive, and down-home feeling counterbalanced the more academic extremes of guitarist James Emery and bassist John Lindberg. As a leader, most notably on The Fire from Within, Rainbow Gladiator, and Valve No. 10 (all on Soul Note), he combined a reckless swing with the free-jazz melodicism and a mile-wide romantic streak. Although not a virtuoso in a classical sense (too much refinement would work against the earthiness of his concept), he commands a wide range of advanced techniques, from bluesy moans to percussive clucks and scrapes that push his solos away from tonality and then launch into realms of pure sound and rhythm. It all gives the music a heady sense of freedom and risk.

Bang always seems liberated by the unaccompanied solo: his previous solo disc, 1979's Distinction Without a Difference (hatHut), was one of his most consistently adventurous outings. On Commandment -- which was recorded live in a loft and inspired by the sculpture of artist Alian Kirilli -- his freest solo flights are grounded in the blues and his Baptist upbringing. Sometimes simplicity is Bang's greatest ally. On "Swing Low Sweet Chariot," he wrings unforeseen deep emotions out of a handful of variations on the melody. On the other hand, "They Plan To Leave," a straightforward, lilting melody by Sun Ra, inspires some of the most baroque and abstract playing of the set. Bang is adept at blending his lyrical side and his frenzied textural playing in a single performance. He moves through the entire spectrum on "Daydreams" and "Pietè," making a persuasive case for the continuity of African-American music, from farm houses on the Delta to art galleries in New York.

Bang changes direction freely on Commandment, lingering over details for as long as he pleases, investigating subtle textures and sounds that would be lost if other instruments were involved. But he also loves a groove, and on Bang On! he's got a powerful rhythm section including pianist Jackson, bassist Akira Ando, and drummer Ronnie Burrage to propel him.

In a band, Bang's trills and smears tug against the beat to create tension while his surging lines ride it with an effortless élan. " 'Bama Swing" and an uptempo "Yesterdays" seesaw between his expansive reinforcement of the groove and his need to mess it up a bit. On "Three Faces of Eve," an Afro-Latin funk original, he escapes melody and harmony into sheer sound and rhythm, using his hot, gritty tone and percussive attack to create excitement. But his gift for sweet melodic invention is fully displayed on a gently singing "They Plan To Leave" -- a sharp contrast to the fireworks of his solo version on Commandment.

The highlight of Bang On! is "Spirits Entering," a high-energy explosion in which Jackson's two-fisted tone clusters provide a rocky underpinning to one of Bang's most beautifully rendered textural solos. It's a performance in which joy contends with sorrow and emerges triumphant. It's a story told in the accents of the blues and gospel and in the language of modern jazz. And it's a story Billy Bang knows how to tell with the best of them.

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