Billy Bang

Distinction without a Difference
Corbett vs. Dempsey CvsD CD 035

Animated and vigorous on the 11 selections here, Distinction Without a Difference captures that side of violinist Billy Bang’s multi-faceted style on this reissue of the first disc under his own name. Bang (1947-2011) had already recorded with some Loft Era bands and was in the process of organizing all-acoustic String Trio of New York, but on his own was able to give free reign to the pent-up energy that had characterized his playing on the scene ever since he discovered sympathetic musicians with whom to work in the mid-1970s following his army stint in Viet Nam. Not only does this CD contain all the material recorded in 1979 and issued on the hatHut LP of the same name, but an additional five selections from another solo concert a few months earlier.

Bang was, after Leroy Jenkins, the first player to find a place for the fiddle in exploratory improvisation. However listening almost 40 years after the fact it’s instructive to note how many Jazz conventions Bang maintained. Throughout there’s always a sense of swing in his performances, and more often than not, he repeats the head before he finishes the tune. These tropes are even more noticeable on the earlier, formerly unreleased material. For instance while “Subway Ride with Giuseppi Logan” may, like most of the other tracks, use such extended techniques as flying spiccato and repeated stops on taut strings, in this case to depict the jerky journey, and later accede to brisk pressurized multiphonics, the theme is rephrased at the finale. Composed by William Parker, “Prana”, is a near-ballad advanced with string stopping. And is that a quote from “Autumn Leaves” that pokes out among the scratchy percussiveness of Bang’s thrusts? Bang goes pseudo-folksy in the 1978 variant on “Skip to my Lou”. But you can also hear him toying with folkloric motifs on the earlier “Fiddle in the Floodlight”, especially when a sweet simple melody is mixed among the spectacular scrubbed and held notes.

Bursting with energy as pronounced as then contemporary Energy Music, the 1979 recording are a mixture of sentiment and strength. Repeated glissandi are indurate enough that you expect him to break a string with every thrust, and his spiccato bowing is such that he’s constantly pushing forward with the tenacity of a bull dog holding onto a ball. A track like “Sometime Later” may be moderated and less confrontational than some of the others, but Bang still experiments with diverse phrasing and, as on other tracks, produces vamps that almost make it appear that two violins are sounding. Meantime “Loweski” could be termed a New Thing blues with the swing supplemented by Bang’s nervous energy that slices and stops the strings at racing car speeds. The key track may be “Theme for Masters” however where sul ponticello thrusts and triple stopping aid in repeating the theme at a more rugged pace and in higher pitches and he layers so many notes that it seems further elevation or pressure is impossible – then he tops that by doing so.

Later on Bang would record more profound, more outside and more swinging dates. But this welcome reissue demonstrates his ideas near his career beginning and hints at why his work was eventually so profound.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Improvisation for Sweet Space 2. Loweski 3. Part of a Distinction without a Difference 4. Theme for Masters 5. Sometime Later 6. Skip to my Lou 7. Prana 8. Echo Vamp 9. Subway Ride with Giuseppi Logan 10. A Pebble is a Small Rock 11. Fiddle in the Floodlight

Personnel: Billy Bang, (violin)