Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings


Billy Bang’s Survival Ensemble
Black Man’s Blues / New York Collage
NoBusiness NBCD 30/31

FAB Trio
History of Jazz in Reverse
TUM CD 028

On May 16 1978, at Columbia University’s WKCR’s studio, Billy Bang set down his first recording as a leader, a brittle, spiny collage of new-jazz and verse, credited to his Survival Ensemble. Exactly a decade earlier, he was in Vietnam, a tunnel rat with the infantry, just about to get stripes and a citation as the Tet offensive degenerated from adder-bite suddenness into a lunatic moil of broken fronts and local campaigns that would have seemed confused even by Thirty Years War standards, but which were singularly out of place in an age whose signature ambition was to put a man on the moon. Bang (William Walker) attempted to exorcise his demons in Vietnam: The Aftermath and Vietnam: Reflections, two of his least successful recordings, though their “failure” may be as much critical perception as creative lapse, for it is virtually impossible not to psychoanalyze that music after the fact and project into it every liberal and illiberal datum available to us about America’s war and its political, psychic and karmic fallout.

It had always seemed to be, even before The Aftermath and Reflections came out in 2001 and 2004 respectively – and on a Canadian label! – that what happened to Bang in Vietnam, not to belittle the intensity or trauma of that experience, was less significant to him as an artist than what happened since he shipped out and returned to the US. He didn’t need Sun Ra, a one-time employer and a frequently overlooked influence on the violinist’s music and career, to tell him that if warfare is 99% boredom and 1% sheer terror, arguably recalibrated in Vietnam to 50% grinding anxiety and 50% morbid self-indulgence, then life as a African-American in Fortress USA was likely to be compounded of equal parts alienation and rearguard community spirit. Bang’s life and work after 1968, recounted by Bill Shoemaker on the TUM release and more fully by Ed Hazell on the NoBusiness archive release, has an Ellisonian logic. Walker’s considerable intellect – which I found to be unexpectedly analytical when we met, not because I didn’t expect logic from a black man, but because I didn’t expect exegesis from someone who played like Bang – and his finely tuned, or attuned, awareness of social class and socio-economic positioning gave him a perspective on jazz music that makes the title of the posthumous TUM release with Joe Fonda and Barry Altschul seem all the more apposite.

After demob, Bang gravitated to the Basement on East 6th St on the Lower East Side, a fraternal meeting place that seems to have been quite different from better known performance spaces like Studio RivBea. The Arkestra was in quarters not far away. With a kid to support, Bang found himself shoveling coal in another basement, Richard Wright joining Ralph Ellison in the back-story. Politically, the place was a ferment, but with the muddled attitude to legitimate social action that one always finds in a nation at war. Bang had been kept out of a bank heist by a member of the gang, Clive Hunter, who became Bilal Abdul Rahman under the prison influence of the former H. Rap Brown, and then became the musical heart and moral centre of the Survival Ensemble, a saxophone player whose raw presence and ineluctable logic has something of the madrassah about it. He’s the revelation here. Where Bang skitters around on top, the one-time tunnel rat always eager for air and light, keen to exercise his poetic voice, it’s Rahman and the adamantine William Parker who give the music its gravitation.
A small version of the Ensemble, also with Rashid Bakr on drums, but minus the second saxophone of Henry Warner and the additional percussion provided on New York Collage by Khuwana Fuller, was recorded at a Soweto “day of solidarity” in May 1977, a full year before the “official” album was launched. It occupies the first half of the NoBusiness set, dominated by a sequence steered by Parker and very much fired by anger at the attrition of creativity in the jazz world, symbolized by the death of Albert Ayler.
Ayler’s contribution to jazz, one paralleled by the AACM brotherhood in Chicago, was a reassertion of the music’s communitarian spirit. Though a self-appointed jester in a green leather suit with a symbolically forked beard, Ayler reshaped a strain of improvisation that later emerged in the Revolutionary Ensemble, the Survival Ensemble and outfits like Steve Adegoke Colson’s Unity Troupe. Bang told me that he had trouble as a youngster toting his violin through the district; this was a new and disrespectful thing. Way back, a man carrying an axe like that in a black neighborhood would have been treated with respect. Bang’s defining sound always seemed to me to suggest a combination of defensiveness and almost haughty authority. It is already present on the archive recordings, particularly New York Collage but it has mellowed considerably on the late History of Jazz in Reverse, which has an inevitably elegiac quality. “For Bea” is a mournful collective memory of the loft scene, improvised by the trio, while a glorious version of Compay Segundo’s “Chan Chan” is a vividly retrieved memory of Bang’s youthful contact with Afro-Cuban and PR music in and around Spanish Harlem. With further blessings derived “From the Waters of New Orleans,” a memory of planetary gypsy Don Cherry and an opening improvisation called “Homeward Bound,” not to mention the title track and the fact of Bang’s death from cancer shortly afterward, it is hard not to detect a backward glance and air of summing-up. The spirit, though, is very different to that, and acutely summed up by Shoemaker as “past is a prologue.” It’s arguably Bang’s most pro-active and exploratory session for many years, his violin sound nudging at the overtones he was picking up from the twinned saxophones on the Survival Ensemble date, generating massy string effects with Fonda and relieving Altschul of sentry duty on the metre-fence with those brilliantly articulated percussive strikes with the bow; you could run a clock over Bang’s sense of time and you wouldn’t find him a nano-second out. By contrast, the early stuff has time weighing heavily on it and at moments it seems purposeless and random, and not in ways determined by its “free” aesthetic.
These are important documents. Arguably you get a better sense of “early Bang” from the first String Trio of New York records, but Black Man’s Blues/New York Collage is valuable archaeology, perhaps more precious for the limited edition evanescence of the release. The TUM record is quite simply a masterwork, and, lest it seem that it has been hi-jacked by the obituarizing instinct, a trio masterwork whose other participants also deserve a chapter apiece.
–Brian Morton


Michael Bates
Acrobat: Music For, and By, Dmitri Shostakovich
Sunnyside SSC 1291

Despite his reputation as the most internationally celebrated composer of the Soviet era, Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) has not been as widely recognized by creative improvisers as Bela Bartók (1881-1945) or Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). Though much of Shostakovich’s output employed similar strategies as his peers and forbearers, his harrowing relationship with Stalin’s regime became particularly strained when his music was deemed too formalistic. Bracing chamber works and controversial song cycles were stored away and rarely performed, yet his symphonies were perceived as heroic by authorities and satirical by intellectuals.

Canadian-born contrabassist Michael Bates has drawn inspiration from this subversive spirit on Acrobat: Music For, and By, Dmitri Shostakovich. Kindled by the DIY ethics of his own punk rock past, Bates’ fascination with the furtive defiance of 20th Century Russian composers has been evident since the self-titled 2003 debut of his Outside Sources ensemble on Pommeranc Records, which included the telling ode “Dmitri.” Their sophomore follow-up, A Fine Balance (Between the Lines), featured a vibrant arrangement of Prokofiev’s “Cello Sonata in C Minor,” while the group’s third album, Clockwise (Greenleaf) ended with an arresting tribute entitled “The Russian School.” What differentiates this project is personnel and focus; Bates assembled a hand-picked quintet to tackle a full-length program directly inspired by Shostakovich’s stately writing.

The album opens with a rousing interpretation of “Dance of Death;” based on the fourth movement from “Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 67,” it is the sole piece drawn directly from a Shostakovich score. Bates’ approach here and through the remainder of the date invokes another key influence – the seminal fusion experiments of Miles Davis. Inspired by the trumpeter’s plugged-in innovations, pianist Russ Lossing transcends nostalgia, transferring his idiosyncratic technique to the Fender Rhodes, conjuring amplified volatility and surrealistic ambience from scintillating cascades of distortion. Trumpeter Russ Johnson and multi-reedist Chris Speed gracefully navigate Bates’ labyrinthine compositions, issuing tasteful statements that veer from mellifluous to strident. Their fluency in Eastern European idioms is well documented; in addition to Speed’s membership in Balkan-influence ensembles like Pachora and Slavic Soul Party!, Johnson has performed keen arrangements of Russian classical works with The Other Quartet, including a ravishing rendition of the second movement of Shostakovich’s “Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major, Op. 102” on 2001’s Sound Stains (Knitting Factory). Veteran drummer Tom Rainey rounds out the quintet, adding dramatic heft and supple nuance to the leader’s pliant foundation, their malleable interplay provides an elastic underpinning for the quintet’s exploratory musings.

Though the Dark Prince’s influence is apparent throughout the set, the brooding theatricality of Shostakovich is all-pervasive. The angular momentum of “Strong Arm” and ominous atmosphere of “Silent Witness” seethe with a roiling fury reminiscent of Davis’ late ‘60s work, echoing a potent combination Shostakovich regularly transposed into symphonic angst. The mercurial mood shifts of tunes like “Fugitive Pieces” and “The Given Day” juxtapose melancholy lyricism against sardonic martial cadences, emulating the Russian composer’s sarcasm. Channeling the indefatigable fortitude of Shostakovich and his contemporaries, the languid ballad “Some Wounds” provides introspective respite in the face of sonic oppression, emboldened by a probing acoustic piano rumination from Lossing that stands as the record’s emotional high point.

Bates’ unique portrait of Shostakovich is both respectful and unconventional – a contradictory combination that mirrors the iconic composer’s own working methods. Embracing the nostalgic and modernistic in equal measure, Bates has created a fascinating tribute that, much like the dedicatee’s oeuvre, is greater than the sum of its parts.
-Troy Collins


Bobby Bradford-John Carter Quintet
Comin’ On
hatOLOGY 693

Vinny Golia Quartet
Take Your Time
Relative Pitch 1003

This reissued Bobby Bradford-John Carter Quintet CD has a beautiful piece, “Ode to the Flower Maiden,” in which clarinetist Carter creates a long improvisation, ever so gracefully yet with bright, winding melodies and many subtle moods. Long tones and chords from Don Preston’s synthesizer, Richard Davis’s bowed bass, and Bradford’s trumpet and the quiet murmur of Andrew Cyrille’s drums make a sunlit rubato setting for (as annotator Art Lange points out) Carter’s Debussyian work. It’s one of the best things he ever did on clarinet, and Bradford’s solo, shorter and in a way as grand and clear as Louis Armstrong, is also beautiful. Really, the spirit of His Majesty Louis (as Bradford has called him) is in the curve of Bradford’s melody line and the sensitivity of his note choices here and elsewhere on this wonderful album.

This 1988 California concert occurred during the several years it took to record Carter’s huge epic Roots and Folklore: Episodes in the Development of American Folk Music; their freedom, their interplay and their fellow feeling being the result of over two decades of working and changing together in duets and in co-led combos. Two of the five pieces are new, the rest are oldies by the two leaders. The rhythm section is also inspired – the three swing together and they also invent contrasting tensions. I like the clanging-harp sound and solo freak-out of Preston’s synthesizer in “Encounter” as well as his flowing, post-Cecil Taylor piano solo in “Room 408.” Davis sometimes enhances the music’s movement and other times merely draws attention to him. His “Encounter” solo starts strong but soon declines into slurs and exaggerated vibrato. Cyrille, by contrast, is forthright and consistently motivates the ensemble throughout the CD.

Bradford is so lyrical and Carter is so forceful and daring in their respective solos. “Sunday Afternoon Jazz Society Blues” is a fine Carter theme and his clarinet solo is full of extremes – wild leaps and wilder high cries, his own time imposed on the near-perfect, swinging medium tempo – yet for all this expansive material, his solo is a natural whole. His concluding, theme-derived phrase (rather like “Sonnymoon for Two”) makes theme material for Bradford’s own incisive solo, and the way they concoct variations together is another delight. Much the same is true of the other three pieces in varying medium tempos: Bradford burrows into his themes, yielding smiling melodies, while Carter’s explorations encounter hair-raising complexities. Along with solos there are intriguing ensemble collective improvisations, especially in the blues and in “Room 408.”

Vinny Golia’s 2007 quartet date features Bradford and it has another vivid contrast: Bradford’s straightforward, sometimes humorous, trumpet against Golia’s flamboyant, bombastic saxophones. Okay, Wynton Marsalis is flamboyant and bombastic too, so why do I admire Golia much more? Maybe because Marsalis always seems to be acting a role, a fiction, an idealized jazzman out of an Albert Murray story, whereas Golia is the real thing, an artist totally dedicated to communicating his own vision. On tenor, alto, and soprano saxes he’s florid, he plays many notes for every note that Bradford plays. Typically his solos begin with good ideas but before he develops them very far, he lapses into a reflex double-time mode, with long, many-noted runs and phrases full of hard bop-like twists and swoops. An alto solo in “Parambulist” is an exception, the double-time elements fit better.

Most of the eight tracks on this CD have less solo space, yet Bradford’s mostly shorter trumpet solos are still fine. His solo in “Otolith” is so winningly melodic that an Annie Ross should write lyrics to it. Especially in the fine “On the Steel” chase Bradford’s biting tones and growls nicely subvert Golia’s soprano, and in fact this CD has a number of clever chases scattered throughout, with clever Bradford-Golia contrasts. The rhythm section is fine, with the deep tom rolls and dark cymbals of drummer Alex Cline, the ensemble sensitivity of bassist Ken Filiano, and the energy of both as well as their “Welcome Home” swing. Finally, sometimes, as in “On the Steel,” Golia’s themes seem to inspire the improvisers, while on some other tracks I wish he had left more room for soloists.
–John Litweiler


Chris Brown
New World 80723-2

California composer Chris Brown (a member of HUB, the long-standing group devoted to electronic improvisation) presents three works here in which his own piano, computer, live processing and analog electronics are combined in various configurations with percussion, William Winant acting as percussionist on two of the pieces and conductor of his percussion ensemble on another. The three pieces, composed between 1985 and 2010, range from 15 to 19 minutes in length, and each mates an immediately beautiful surface of metallic percussion with rhythmic structures of remarkable complexity. Listening to the music isn’t easy – to listen closely to it is an intense experience in the malleability of pitch and time, whether the latter is heard as particles or on an imagined scale – but it’s likely easier than conceptualizing or writing about the work offered here. In the CD booklet Brown briefly describes the work – in terms that are perhaps as simple as they might be – as follows:

An “iconicity” is the analogy between the form of a sign and its meaning. All three of these pieces are through-composed using simple processes applied to both the sounds of the instruments and their real-time electronic transformations. The players must synchronize exactly with the rhythms produced by these transformations, and together the acoustic and electronic layers of sound create closely interwoven textures that evolve gradually into more complex forms. The acoustic sounds and the patterned variations of their recurrence affect the listener’s experience of time, and provide a metaphor for its transcendence.      

There follows an essay by Eyvind Kang that provides structural details of the compositions (the math is daunting, I suspect the performers approach transcendence by total concentration on counting) along with the philosophical and spiritual principles underlying them. Insofar as they’re a reflection of Brown’s thought and a complement to his work (an analogy between the form of the work and its meaning, perhaps), it’s hard to approach a description of the work without taking Kang into account, as he presents roughly 1,000 words of background and speculation on each piece, eventually concluding:

In Stupa [2007], the ground of the Icon is the polarity of immediacy and eternity, of duration both physical and metaphysical. In Gangsa [2010], the experience of time is conditioned on consciousness, through the memory of the composer and listening subject, on the history of the instruments and their sounds. In Iceberg [1985], both these Iconographies are collapsed – the eternal is folded into the immediate, the subject dissolves, history and memory disappear, and sound seems to exist alone, without intention, uncreated, unperceived.     

...Is time, as nature, irreversibly affected by the experience of consciousness, as shown by a glacier which recedes, which melts, which breaks into an iceberg, which in turn dissolves into the ocean, just as the listener has dissolved into time. (a pdf is available at

I enjoyed these works the first three times I listened to them – for the sheer sheen of the glittering metallic surface as well as the elusive but insistent structures. There are strong affinities with the works of both Terry Riley and Steve Reich, and Gangsa, named for the Philippine flat-gongs on which the ensemble plays, is especially beautiful. As to any kind of further assessment, I’m starting to fear further listening.
–Stuart Broomer

Rogue Art

> More Moment's Notice

> back to contents