Billy Bang loved Rochester because Rochester loved Billy Bang. You could tell when he took the stage and he said as much. Somehow the rough and tumble sophistication fit. He was a cocky star in the underground jazz movement when he appeared with Sun Ra’s band at the Red Creek in ’86 and over the years Tom Kohn brought him to the Bop Shop atrium, the German House and Water Street in many configurations. His music soared when he began writing his haunting Viet Nam suite. It took him a while to process his war experience but when he did it came out in an incredibly rich, dark, beautiful way. Track down “KIAMIA” on iTunes and I’ll stop trying to describe it. He tore the roof off of Montage during the 2004 Rochester Jazz Festival and did so again in 2006 when Garth Fagan joined him on stage. The violinist was scheduled to open the fest this year but word has spread that he’s died of cancer and we’ll miss him.
Bang’s music transcends jazz and could easily fit on Scott Regan’s “Open Tunings” or Rick Simpson’s “Gumbo Variations”. In fact I’ll request it tonight. We saw Scott last night at the Margaret Explosion gig and I hope he doesn’t come down with anything in the next few days. I was telling him I thought I gotten sick from sick from a reaction to the drug they gave me for my colonoscopy but it had been in the back of mind that maybe I caught a bug from Scott’s bandmate, Steve Piper, who shook Peggi’s hand after their gig on Saturday night and then told Peggi that he had been sick with a stomach flu. Well Peggi left the stage while we were playing last night in a rather dramatic fashion. I followed her to the bathroom and sure enough she had the bug so I was wrong about my bad reaction and just as wrong to blame Steve Piper for the bug that is going around. Who wouldn’t shake Steve’s hand after his rousing version of an Elvis’s “His Latest Flame”?
In a repeat of 2005 we started the Festival with the Bill Frisell Trio at Kilbourn Hall. There was a lot more interplay with this trio than the last one. Tony Scherr and Kenny Wollesen are great players and fun to watch. I wish Bill had given them a little space of their own but it is Bill’s band after all. The show started with about five minutes of bird sounds and they worked the tweets into the first tune. Bill was was wearing the dumpiest white sport coat you’ve ever seen. He handles his effects boxes, including the one labeled Kook”, with exceptional flair. You are always aware that they are part of his sound but they are never obtrusive. Each song was distinct from the next and they ranged from Dead-like wandering to Monk swing with some very pretty stuff in between.
We ran into Jeff Spevak and Margaret and Martin Edic and Bill and Geri and Sharon from the Genesee Center for the Arts all coming out of the first show of Billy Bang. Everyone was smiling and raving about the the last number they had just heard, Ornette’s “Lonely Woman”.
Along with their sponsorship bucks Xerox has opened the doors to their beautiful performing arts center. We had front row seats for Billy Bang and the band sounded tremendous in this venue. I remember being here in the mid seventies for jazz shows. The stage is low and wide open. Billy had his regular touring piano player and drummer and a new bass player, Hilliard Green, who looked and sounded like Willie Dixon. Look at this guy. He’s standing up back there but getting down! Billy also brought along a trumpet player for some reason. We’ve seen these guys many times and they are always great. Gutsy, they swing and take it to the edge, reworking Billy’s beautiful, haunting, Viet Nam melodies so they never get old.
Billy Bang’s drummer did an old fashioned spoon solo during their version of “All Blues”. Rochester loves Bang. Billy scored a few songs for for Rochester’s Garth Fagan Dance and Garth told Bang, “Billy, you’ve got to play your solo the same way each time because I have arranged these movements for my dancers. ” Billy told the crowd, “Garth taught me how to play Billy Bang”.
We have been lucky to see Billy Bang so many times. We first saw him at Red Creek in the seventies when he was playing in Sun Ra’s band. He has played here three times during the Jazz Fest and Garth Fagan hired him to perform live for one of his dance pieces in Greece. Tom Kohn had him at the Bop Shop in the Atrium a few times with different line-ups.
The lineup tonight at the German House was one of my favorite configurations – a trio called FAB with Joe Fonda on bass, Barry Altschul on drums and Billy Bang on violin. All three are amazng players and improvisors. In this setting Billy is as melodic as ever but the band is not just here to support Billy. This is an exciting three way street. We sat with Jeff Munson and took in the sights with our eyes closed.
Billy Bang was back in Rochester last week. He calls this place the sixth borough. He had a new drummer this time but Bang introduced him as someone who had played with him on recordings in the past. They did a beautiful version of KIA MIA one of Bang’s Viet Nam albums and a song that Billy wrote for Sun Ra. The first time we saw Billy Bang was out at the old Red Creek when he was playing violin in Sun Ra’s band. This was somewhere in the seventies.
We have seen Bang so many times over the years. He was in the Bop Shop atrium with Kahill El’zabar and once more with his own group. He has appeared twice at at the Rochester Jazz Fest and we saw him at the old Montage, downtown. Then he performed live with Garth Fagan Dance out at a Greece High School. And then he was at the Water Street last year. He is always fantastic but more so on some nights. He’s best in a small setting when you are right on top of him. He eggs his band on and they try to keep him grounded. On a good night he will just tear the roof off the place. Billy Bang finished his set with a version of Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman.”