As a relative newbie to the world of jazz, I'd not heard of Billy Bang prior to receiving his recording with Bill Cole to review. There it sat, waiting in the pile with the rest. Possessed by something probably otherworldly, I slipped the disc in and closed my eyes.
Bang, a violinist, jammed himself into my consciousness with startling immediacy. I had to know more, I had to "discover" Billy Bang for myself.
A quick search turned up some disheartening news that affected me more than I thought it could. Billy Bang died just a few days ago on April 11. He was scheduled to open the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival in June, too. He was 63.
I got to wondering how weird it would be for me to write anything of meaning about Billy Bang. Could I possibly have anything remotely interesting to say about him? After all, we'd only just "met."
Working with Asian double-reed master Bill Cole on this self-titled recording, Bang is something else. The album is a live recording of a concert at the University of Virginia Chapel in Charlottesville. It's from April of 2009.
One of three improvisations opens up the record with a shot of pure atmosphere. Cole plays didgeridoo, insistently providing an undercurrent that is almost foreboding. Bang knots into the foundation, propelling shards of striking violin into the sky.
"Shades of Kia Mia" picks up after the free flow of the opening number and finds a little more ground to stand on. The piece is a variation of a song Bang wrote for a CD called Vietnam: The Aftermath. Cole plays the nadaswaram. The loud cacophony is hard to take at times, but the piece isn't exactly built for comfort. Bang screeches and screams on the violin, while the vibrant cries of the Tamil Nadu instrument calls back.
As the album carries on, it's apparent that Bang isn't about to let his emotions sit on the sidelines. His playing comes coated with pain, with some intense form of suffering. Indeed, it seems that the Vietnam: The Aftermath recording was a harrowing but necessary experience for the violinist. The catharsis carries on with Cole at his side, gaining strength with each passing moment.
The record features two more improvisations, one with Cole matching Bang's violin with a flute. The third and final improvisational piece closes out the album with Cole on shenai. It follows Bang's composition, "Jupiter's Future."
I've listened to this album about a half dozen times now - in a row. It makes waves over me. It courses with emotion, fire, pain. It's not an easy listen. It better not be.
So can I say anything of note about Billy Bang? Not really.
I can tell you that he was born in Alabama and that he references the likes of Stuff Smith and Duke Ellington when he plays. I can tell you that he studied with Leroy Jenkins and played with Bill Laswell, Don Cherry, Sun Ra, James Emery, and so on. And I can tell you that he's not easy. Even now, Billy Bang's not easy.