BILLY BANG

Big Bang Theory
Justin Time JUST 135-2

Was it pianist/composer Muhal Richard Abrams who said he didn't want his music to be described as "avant garde" anymore because labeling it that way was "a kiss of death"?

Whoever it was, inventive violinist Billy Bang, who heads this exemplary album, could testify to the truth of that statement as well. One of the two prominent fiddlers — Leroy Jenkins is the other — who stripped the instrument of enough of its innate "prettiness" to let it hold its own with the iron men drummers and horn players of the early 1970s, Bang was never exclusively an avant gardist.

His 1982 Outline No. 12, for horns and strings, for instance, explored some of new music/improv parameters that concerned folks like Anthony Braxton and Butch Morris later on. His stint with Kahil El'Zabar's Ritual Trio revolved around a funky groove and his stints in the jazz chamber group The String Trio of New York, and Bill Laswell's rock-oriented Material pinpointed his virtuosity

So while uninformed neo-con jazzers still whine about his pinched tone and pillory him for "avant garde" leanings, CDs like this one and his earlier sessions for Justin Time show that among his many other attributes, versatile Bang can output pure swing when he sets his bow to it.

In fact, the careful listener would note that this quartet's heartfelt rhythm and relaxed tunefulness, call up the image of no one more than trickster Stuff Smith — mainstream jazz's violin clown prince of the 1930s to 1960s. And no one ever attacked Stuff for being "far out".

Bang et. al score in any number of ways throughout the more than 66 minutes of this disc. They're reverently spiritual on the traditional "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," low-down enough on El'Zabar's "Contrary Motion", and in-the-pocket when liming Freddie Hubbard's 1970s anthem "Little Sunflower." Unspectacular but steady bassist Lundy and pianist Pope each contribute a jaunty blowing piece, while Moffett — today's drummer-of-choice — supplies whatever accents are needed.

Furthermore, while Bang's five originals may be a little more astringent and spiky than what aging young lions play in trendy jazz & cigar boîtes, there's probably nothing so "oddball" enough there send his critics scurrying back to their National Reviews or following e-trades on NASDAQ.

Probably the most noteworthy is the violinist's brief, but heart-felt spoken word salute then string solo requiem for Denis* Charles, another non-idiomatic improviser who died a couple of years ago.

Charles who was best known — or perhaps most criticized — as Cecil Taylor's first drummer, never let the jazz fashion police get to him. He was playing powerfully until the very end. With BIG BANG THEORY we can probably be confident that Bang will go out the same way.

-Ken Waxman

Track listing: 1. Contrary Motion 2. At Play In The Fields Of The Lord 3. Big Bang Theory 4. Theme For Taraby 5. Silent Observation 6. One For Jazz (For Dennis* Charles) 7. Sweet Irene 8. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot 9. Saved By The Bell 10. Little Sunflower

Personnel: Billy Bang (violin); Alexis T. Pope (piano); Curtis Lundy (bass); Codaryl Moffett (drums)