The Circle with a Hole in the Middle

Rare Vinyl Revisited
Bill Shoemaker


Billy Bang Sextet featuring Frank Lowe
Sweet Space
Anima 12741 (1979)

Billy Bang African American violinists were a spotty presence in jazz in the late 1970s. Ray Nance passed in ’76; Michael White was through at Impulse; Leroy Jenkins was virtually a one-man avant-garde. Granted, Claude Williams was riding the draft of Jay McShann’s rediscovery, and Joe Kennedy and John Blake were getting noticed; but they were in Kansas City, Richmond and Philly, respectively, and had little to no presence in New York, which was a far more determinative scene than it is today.

Subsequently, Billy Bang could not have emerged in the New York loft jazz scene at a more propitious time. He was a natural, and largely self taught. Though he was given a violin in junior high school, he only immersed himself in the instrument after his conscripted military service in Vietnam during the late ‘60s (a crucible that, a quarter-century later, became the subject of his most profound recordings). Though he received crucially timed tutelage from Jenkins (who, along with Ornette Coleman, were early inspirations), the spirit of Bang’s playing was more often closer to fiddlers like Williams than to the exploratory AACM stalwart. There was a raucous, pyrotechnic edge to Bang’s playing, and it exuded blues and swing, despite its avantish tilt.

These qualities were apparent on New York Collage, Bang’s 1978 Anima debut with his Survival Ensemble, even though Bang’s leadership of the date is tenuous. Not only did saxophonist Bilal Abdur Rahman penned two of the four pieces, they account for a mostly unpersuasive B side, one shaped far more by Bang’s vehement anti-establishment poetry and the ensemble’s witheringly intense blowing than by Bang’s well-hooked, often rustically bluesy compositions. Though it is also noteworthy for being an early item in the discographies of bassist William Parker and drummer Rashid Bakr, New York Collage remains simply an intriguing first effort

By late 1979, Bang’s stock had risen considerably. He had toured Europe, recording First String, his first album with String Trio of New York, in June, initiating a fruitful relationship with the Milan-based label during its halcyon days in the ‘80s and ‘90s. His notices in New York outlets like the then influential Soho Weekly News were consistently effusive, and were beginning to be echoed in international forums like Down Beat. Arguably, the best measure of Bang’s growing stature were the musicians he mustered for projects like the seven-man sextet he assembled for Sweet Space, a Columbia University gig recorded in November (it would be more than two years before Henry Threadgill convened his seven-person Sextet).

Bang’s ensemble included two players who, if only briefly, had broken through the glass ceiling that were major US record labels. As a member of Air, drummer Steve McCall already had recorded what proved to be the three-and-out albums for Arista Novus, including the pivotal Air Lore, which signaled the promise of neo-classicism with its interpretations of Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton compositions. In 1975, tenor saxophonist Frank Lowe led the critically acclaimed Arista-Freedom date, Fresh, and shared the front line on Don Cherry’s A&M Horizon album, Brown Rice. In the fall of the same year, Lowe recorded the minor classic, The Flam, one of the first titles issued by Black Saint.

The ensemble included four players who were coming into their own. Alto saxophonist Luther Thomas’ stock was spiking on the strength of Funky Donkey, which was recorded in 1973, but not released until ’77 (it was reissued as part of Atavistic’s Unheard Music Series in 2000). Leading an edition of the Human Arts Ensemble that included Charles “Bobo” Shaw and Lester and Joseph Bowie, Thomas’ fusion of free jazz and funk became and remains a milestone. With Shaw and Bowie, Thomas was also central to the Human Arts Ensemble’s reconstitution in New York after the demise of the Black Artists Group in St. Louis, where they originally joined forces.

Pianist Curtis Clark and cornetist Lawrence “Butch” Morris were known mainly for their work with David Murray. By this time, Morris been on a dozen recordings dates, of which half were made as part of Murray’s front line. Morris had also made albums in Paris with Lowe and Steve Lacy, and led a 1978 date for Kharma with Grachan Moncur III, McCall, and his brother Wilbur, who also played bass on Sweet Space.

Regardless of their respective track records to date, each musician played an integral role in creating an ebullient, deceptively shambling ensemble sound, which is typified by the opening track on Sweet Space, “A Pebble Is A Small Rock.” Dedicated to “Mr. & Mrs. Irving Stone,” for whom the downtown performance space The Stone was named, the piece is classic Bang; the Middle Eastern-tinged theme rides a buoyant vamp, its bright mood undimmed by minor blues changes and an explosive turnaround device.

Bang is the leadoff soloist and immediately tosses off tightly coiled lines that spring open with soaring long notes. In the subsequent choruses, he saws more furiously, but inevitably inserts a stunningly complex run that exploits the changes. In about two minutes, Bang demonstrates his significant growth since New York Collage, and that he had become a tough soloist to follow. That unenviable task falls to Thomas, who quickly resorts to ultra-high register screams and squeals to sustain the excitement. Clark follows, but his attempt to use clusters and clanging arpeggios to build a mass of sound is not hot enough in the mix to fan the flames. Instead, the pianist wisely keeps the music at a simmer, allowing Lowe’s mix of bluesy phrases and raspy shouts to bring it back to the head. The A side is rounded out by the title piece, which commences with a duel of darting lines between Bang and a muted Morris. The theme is little more than a staccato note repeated until it is capped with a trill, an obvious not to Jenkins and his AACM cohorts like Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell. The piece ends with another Bang-Morris tandem bumblebee-like flight.

McCall’s opening statement on “Loweski For Frank (T.F.R.)” exemplifies his tendency to build solos combining quick sweeps of the kit and stomping exclamations. This latter quality of his drumming underpins the chain of riffs that comprise the bulk of the tune, while Butch Morris’ beaming embellishments highlight the swing of the bridge. Lowe hands in a Rollins-inspired solo, rounding off angular, even anguished lines with a swooping phrase. He even quotes “East Broadway Rundown.” Bang jumps in with another thrilling solo, which stretches the thematic material into twisting, feverishly bowed lines whose only possible resolution is reprise of the theme. Though Butch Morris’ “Music For The Love Of It” is a scant motive set to a sparse chord progression, it has a supple grace that makes it a fine set-closer, possessing enough elasticity for each musician to momentarily stretch the material without disfiguring it.

Several of the musicians on Sweet Space continued to work with Bang into the 1980s and ‘90s. In addition to The Jazz Doctors, a co-op quartet with bassist Rafael Garrett and drummer Denis Charles that recorded Intensive Care for Cadillac in ’83, Bang and Lowe appear together on a series of LPs initiated by pianist/painter A. R. Penck, and on each other’s dates. The most notable of these was Bang’s Outline – No. 12, recorded in ’82 for Celluloid, which featured a boldly configured 11-piece ensemble, and is the first recording to be conducted by Butch Morris. Wilber Morris was on the date, too. He was Bang’s regular bass player throughout the ‘80s; in ’82, Bang, Wilber Morris and Clark reconvened for Invitation, a Black Saint quintet album that featured another version of “A Pebble Is A Small Rock.” On this occasion, the tune is “dedicated to Irving and Stephanie Stone.”

Michael Wilderman's Jazz Visions Photo/Graphics

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