Billy Bang – Prayer for Peace – TUM Records TUM CD 018, 69:57 ****1/2:
(Billy Bang – violin; James Zollar – trumpet, flugelhorn; Andrew Bemkey – piano; Todd Nicholson – bass; Newman Taylor-Baker – drums; Milton Cardona – conga, percussion (tracks 2 & 5); Joe Gonzalez – bongos, percussion (tracks 2 &5))
Jazz violinist Billy Bang deserves to be better known: he is a veteran who has collaborated with Sun Ra, Don Cherry and Sam Rivers; was an important member of New York City’s loft jazz scene of the 1970s; and has guested on records in various genres, from funk (Bootsy Collins) to literary excursions (Kip Hanrahan). Musically, Bang has a technique that combines traditional tones with contemporary forms as well as a sharp, sometimes nearly harsh style that just as often shifts to an expressive, amiable swing.
Bang’s latest offering is Prayer for Peace, recorded in 2005 and released by the Finnish label, TUM Records. The 69-minute album reflects Bangs’ past, present and probably what we can expect on future projects.
Bang’s quintet is top-notch and provides great support with superb solo efforts. Trumpeter and flugelhorn player James Zollar, who has worked with Cecil McBee, Don Byron and Marty Ehrlich, is featured prominently. The rhythm section includes pianist Andrew Bemkey, who has collaborated with Rashied Ali, Andrew Cyrille and others; Tokyo-based bassist Todd Nicholson; and drummer Newman Taylor-Baker, who had a long association with Billy Harper and has performed with Henry Grimes, Henry Threadgill and others.
Bang’s five originals stretch from straightforward swing to Asian influences, and from funk to a freely moving suite-long improvisation. Bang demonstrate his Latin jazz dexterity on lighthearted “At Play in the Fields of the Lord” (previously issued on Bang’s 2007 live document, Above and Beyond: An Evening in Grand Rapids), which develops over approximately ten minutes from a swaying cadence to a twisting crescendo heightened by Bang’s see-sawing violin, Zollar’s perceptive trumpet and percolating rhythms laid down by guest percussionists Milton Cardona and Joe Gonzalez. Taylor-Baker and Nicholson also offer steadfast reinforcement and groove- packed solos. The avian- inspired “Dance of the Manakin” is funky, modern and bounces with a loping backbeat reminiscent of Bill Laswell’s group Material (which Bang participated in during the early 1980s). The aptly titled “Dark Silhouette” – also on the Grand Rapids concert disc – possesses an ominous feeling communicated via a dusky ostinato and minor key chords that furnish a pensive sensitivity: Bang’s squealing violin in particular conveys a foreboding tension.
By all measures the 20-minute title track is the album’s magnum opus. The quintet eases into the lengthy selection gently, allowing each musician to find a characteristic center and build separately to a natural flow. Thematically, the epic number echoes themes from prior Bang undertakings, Vietnam: The Aftermath and Vietnam: Recollections, which spotlighted Bang’s thoughts on war and violence. “Prayer for Peace,” while eminently personal, also has socio-historical links to like-minded composers, including a nod or two to John Coltrane.
Bang bookends Prayer for Peace with two tributes. He starts the set with an entertaining re-translation of Stuff Smith’s “Only Time Will Tell,” which has become a regular part of Bang’s repertoire. Bang closes with “Jupiter’s Future,” which honors Bang’s former employer, Sun Ra. The track is an infectious bop romp that brings out the best in everyone: Zollar sparkles on trumpet, Bemkey flashes brilliantly on piano while the bass and drums put down a charismatic beat.
1. Only Time Will Tell
2. At Play in the Fields of the Lord
3. Dance of the Manakin
4. Prayer for Peace
5. Chan Chan
6. Dark Silhouette
7. Jupiter’s Future
— Doug Simpson