July 13, 2009
Live In Amsterdam
Porter Records PRCD-4014
Beyond the Boundary of Time
Leroy Jenkins (1932-2007) and his direct successor Billy Bang (b. 1947) occupy unique niches in the history of advanced improvised music. Arguably the first person to fully integrate the violin into both the so-called New Thing and New music, Jenkins’ impelled the traditional instrument’s rhythmic and lyrical functions beyond those of mere lyricism or rudimentary swing. While the older string player turned increasingly towards formal composition in his final years, shortly afterwards Bang added an additional dimension of unvarnished rhythmic elasticity to Jenkins’ fiddle liberation.
These two CDs, recorded live at European concerts, demonstrate the pliable strategies both string players brought to in-the-moment creation – as well as the crucial distinctions between the two’s improvising ideas. Live In Amsterdam also appears to be a happier affair than Beyond the Boundary of Time, because it’s part of an onward direction for Bang and his FAB bandmates – bassist Joe Fonda and percussionist Barry Altschul. Beyond the Boundary of Time on the other hand, reunites Jenkins with bassist Sirone and percussionist Jerome Cooper, who as the Revolutionary Ensemble (RE) in the early 1970s made memorable, ground-breaking sounds before dissolving.
Unfortunately the five Warsaw-recorded tracks on Beyond the Boundary of Time, while sonically provocative, are weighted with the expanses that had grown among the trio members over the years. Sirone, whose solid strokes, woody slaps and dramatic double-stopping help expand the band’s palate, often could be creating separate musical tone poems to the others. That’s not surprising, since the long-time Berlin resident now leads his own band with a more conventional jazz instrumentation.
Cooper, whose chief focus since the dissolution of the RE has been solo work, arrives from a contradictory area. On “Le-Si-Jer”, for instance, separation among the three is expressed in more ways than the hyphens in the title. Following an ambitious spiccato wave from Jenkins and some sliding triple string actions and a capella plucks from Sirone, the percussionist seems to operate in a vacuum. Despite the bassist’s attempts at connective accompaniment, Cooper hammers and stings ballaphone timbres, wails and strains reed suction from the chiramia and mates processed keyboard lines with drum beats as if he was a one-man band.
As for Jenkins, his string stance takes two different directions. On “Improvisation II” there are points where his easy lyricism suggests sweet Stéphanne Grappelli-like glissandi rather than his expected strident col legno and flying spiccato runs. In contrast, a track like “Configuration”, which melds slinking arpeggios into a contrapuntal melody, proposes a theme that echoes, if it’s not directly linked to, earlier RE compositions.
All and all the most memorable trio work appears as the finale of the second improvisation. With the tempo boiling by degrees, Cooper’s rebounds and pop are finally matched with knife-edge sharp notes from Jenkins and guitar-like licks from Sirone. Sul ponticello and layered, the overlapping glissandi makes one regret that this was probably the trio’s final recorded stand.
Grappelli is the last violinist one would associate with Bang, whose modus operandi – at least since the leaving the chamber-oriented String Trio of New York in the 1980s – is merging a variant of Jenkins’ prodigious technical smarts with the free-for-all swing of both men’s fiddle forefather Stuff Smith.
Just like Jenkins’ and Smith’s identities were instantaneously recognizable when they played, so too is Bang’s personality when he solos. With sul ponticello runs, quadruple sweeps and crying stops, it often seems as if he’s taking apart his instrument as he plays it, or at least boring into its very wood, rosin and finish.
On this Amsterdam set his bravura strategy is alternately goosed and restrained by the rhythmic thrust of Fonda’s back-and-forth string slaps and Altschul’s drags with crash accents that announce the drummer’s commanding back beat. Overall the trio constructs massive slabs of broken octave melodies that give each enough room for solo invention, without hampering the group effort.
Probably the most spectacular example of that is the concluding “FabMusic Continuation/Spirits Entering”. Initially built on pizzicato plucks and shuffle bowing from Bang as well as cow-bell whacks and measured clip clops from Altschul, the almost 27½-minute piece spreads out metaphorically atop Fonda’s steady walking. Although Bang, for instance, metaphorically reaches the speed of light in his hocketing forays, he doesn't operate as a cynosure. As elastic as every vibration from any of the men is, the general forward motion of the piece is never lost. Also on show are moderato and andante stopping from Fonda, who brings every part of the instrument from the scroll to the spike in play to inflate the string manipulation. Not to be outdone Altschul’s kit reverberates with chiming cymbals and staccatissimo rumbles.
Developing an almost Gospel music-like hand clapping beat, the Bang-composed “Spirits Entering” is introduced as the track’s final variation, shifting the previously stop-time tempo with a series of alto saxophone-styled cries from the violinist. As the other two thunder, crash, stroke and slash contrapuntally, Bang’s strings explode with phrase after phrase, measure after measure and not after note, culminating in a final recapping of the head.
Live In Amsterdam may be more viscerally exciting, but both CDs exposure top-flight violin-centred improvisations.
— Ken Waxman
Track Listing: Live: 1. FabMusic Opening 2. Go East/Da Bang 3. FabMusic Continuation/Spirits Entering
Personnel: Live: Billy Bang (violin); Joe Fonda (bass) and Barry Altschul (drums)
Track Listing: Beyond: 1. Configuration 2. Usami 3. Le-Si-Jer 4. Improvisation I 5. Improvisation II
Personnel: Beyond: Leroy Jenkins (violin); Sirone (bass) and Jerome Cooper (drums, bellaphone, chiramia and Yamaha PSR 1500)