Billy Bang’s Quintet, April 24@Sistas’ Place
Billy Bang’s return to the stage with his group was a much anticipated moment. Having spent a year going through tests and analysis of his physical condition, Billy Bang was ready to try a spiritual solution: playing his violin! Everyone in the room, for both overflowing sets would have had to testify that Billy Bang was back and indeed he came to play and was in great form. The band that he put together was there to support him in a glorious way contributing the kind of individual approaches to their instruments that makes the music possible.
Ted Daniel, in fact, started out the first set by walking through the room with a ceremonial trumpet, setting up everyone for the first song, an original Bang composition, “Yo, Ho Chi Mihn is in the House.” Billy then played his characteristic rhythmic pizzicato to set up an Asian come African vibration. Hill Greene accompanied him with a strong bass line that further anchored the song at the right port. The other musicians entered the song in dramatic fashion, Andrew Bemkey’s piano next, followed by Newman Taylor Baker’s drum. As the mysterious drama unfolded Billy Bang began playing the melody from his very important recording Vietnam Reflections. Ted Daniel re-entered and played a harmony part on muted trumpet. With Newman Taylor Baker steadily cooking underneath, the audience could clearly feel the dramatic buildup. Andrew Bemkey took the first solo and played cascades of sound in the funky Asian/African groove of the song that went right to the heart of the melody. Ted Daniel then took the stage with bright brassy statements full of lip slurs and wonderful tones. Billy then took the stage and the excitement in the room could be felt. Did this great violinist still have the ability to dazzle as his has done for so many years? After a few seconds there was no doubt that he had not lost anything and probably gained some more depth to his playing. The amazing technique that he had developed over the years allowing him to execute extremely complex passages with seemingly effortless ability, was still there.
Throughout the night Billy Bang played in that “take no prisoner’ style of an artist who goes for the jugular each time he stands up to play. Every member of the band was also in top shape. Ted Daniel’s playing throughout the night was melodic and precise. Andrew Bemkey was a marvel. Hill Greene got the audience to holler with all the bass he played. Newman Taylor Baker, whether he played the drums or the spoons as he did in one number.