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More young jazz violinists appear every year, but none sounds like Billy Bang. The youngsters come mostly through music schools rooted in the Euroclassics. Bang forged his sound from scratchby listening to the sounds the instrument could produce with ears tuned to 'Trane, Ornette, and the AACM. After 30 years, he's reached a pinnacle where everything he does takes your breath away.
Aliases are rare in jazz, standard in hip-hop, which was born in Bang's Bronx 'hood. His was a teenage nickname, a taunt adopted as a badge of honor. Same with the violin: At the special music school he attended in Harlem, the students were grouped by size, and the little kid got the violin. Bang would have chosen drums, which he played in subways for change, or saxophone, which he never got a shot at. He dropped the violin when he won a scholarship to a prep school in Massachusetts then came back more confused than ever: "I wasn't black enough to be with the black kids and not white enough to be with the white kids." Drafted into the Vietnam jungle, he was promoted to sergeant. "When I came home, I felt really abused. I felt kidnapped."
The South Bronx had degenerated into a war zone, and many of his friends were so fucked-up he wondered if he had been safer in Vietnam. He climbed on and off a law career track, read politics, fell in with a gang of would-be revolutionaries. On a trip down south to buy guns, he picked up a pawn shop violinfigured that at least was an instrument he knew something about. He stuck with it, moved downtown, picked up pointers from AACM violinist Leroy Jenkins, did the late-'70s loft scene, called his first group the Survival Ensemble. Bang worked on the avant-garde fringes for decades, gigging with Sun Ra, recording occasionally in Europe. By 2000 he was so broke Justin Time's Jean-Pierre Leduc talked him into writing an album about Vietnam and the nightmares that haunted him.
Like Oliver Stone's Vietnam movies, Bang started small and personal. Vietnam: The Aftermath is a spooky record, a soldiers'-eye view of a country that, as "Yo! Ho Chi Minh Is in the House" makes clear, didn't belong to them and didn't welcome them. Bang's violin captures Indochina's musical tone, but the melodicism of his compositions and the tight rein of Butch Morris's conduction are what makes the album so powerful. It proved cathartic enough to generate two more installments. Last May's Vietnam: Reflections offered two small steps toward reconciliation and healing: several folk songs, and two Vietnamese-expat collaborators. The third, forthcoming, will document Bang's return to Vietnam.
While Bang's Vietnam records opened a new and accessible path for Bang, he hasn't lost touch with his old comrades. The best place to hear him play is still William Parker's 2003 Scrapbook, but on a spate of recent records he steals the show. Configuration, with Revolutionary Ensemble bassist Sirone, rocks so hard that saxophonist Charles Gayle comes off like an r&b honker. The live record with El'Zabar is the first of two tributes to Malachi Favors: While the drummer's sermon is awful wishy-washy, Bang and saxophonist Ari Brown trade lines with furious abandon. Tara's Song is tremendous fun, with four Sun Ra alumni, plus young Alex Harding on baritone sax. They drive bebop to the dance floor, turn Frank Lowe quiet storm, recite Sun Ra goofballery like scripture, and close with a surprisingly conventional "Iko Iko."
Equally welcome is a reissue of two forgotten loft-era albums. Sweet Space is a septet date with pumping vamps setting up free rejoinders by Bang and Lowe. On Untitled Gift, Bang squares off with Don Cherry on an Ornette-centered song list, one of the most exciting encounters of either's career. Both underscore Bang's original intention to follow in the saxophonists' footsteps. His more recent work, including turns toward the popular on 1996's Bang On! and the exotic Vietnam records, show the many ways he's taken jazz violin into unchartered territory.
Bang appears at the Stone October 8.