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Sunday, August 10, 2014

Billy Bang: A Tribute to Stuff Smith (Soul Note 121216)

The first album note I ever wrote came about by accident. I worked at Black Saint/Soul Note in the early '90s, when it had a New York office (in the cargo area of JFK Airport, oddly, though since they were importing from Italy, it was somewhat convenient, though certainly my commute was far from convenient). When violinist Billy Bang was scheduled to record an album that Sun Ra would play on, you can be sure I went to the studio.

This turned out to be Sun Ra’s last studio session. It was certainly a pleasure and a privilege to be on the periphery of it, but also somewhat trying. This was after Sonny's stroke, and he was confined to a wheelchair by then, and I'll never forget helping his manager get him out of the cab outside Sear Sound and into the chair while just down the block where a prostitute had been giving a blowjob in clear sight on the sidewalk, a fight broke out between the pimp and the john and they were breaking glass bottles with which to do battle, close enough to us that shards of glass were skittering under the wheelchair. Nor will I forget the totally unrehearsed recording session, with Sun Ra and Bang reconciling differing ideas of how various songs should be structured (as Bang discusses freely above). With Ra's ability to communicate severely impaired post-stroke, the first day proceeded at a crawl, and it was somewhat amazing that it all came together and good music resulted.

Somebody in his camp was scheduled to write these notes, but ended up being too busy dealing with Sonny's health issues (he would die within a year). So, since I was the only Soul Note employee who had attended the session whose native language was English, I got the job. Thanks always to Flavio Bonandrini for taking a chance on me.

In a radio interview back in 1987, Billy Bang was already talking about planning a Stuff Smith project, and if it turned out to be a smaller group than he originally imagined, one statement was still prescient: "It's individual identity that is one of the most important things. When I get this project together I'll be playing the music of Stuff Smith, but when you hear it you'll know it's Billy Bang playing Stuff Smith."

One jazz reference book includes the information that Bang's violin technique had to be corrected because he'd copied Smith's unorthodox way of holding the instrument. Despite this, Bang arrived at his own unique, sweetly acerbic, freely swinging sound. Study with Leroy Jenkins corrected the technical problem, and listening to saxophonists such as Jackie McLean (an obvious tonal influence on Bang) and Ornette Coleman gave Bang a foundation on which to build his own improvisational style. Conscious of what's gone before, he respects it too much to merely imitate it, in the end reflecting the spirit of the original creators. He certainly sees the linear progression. Bang says of Stuff Smith, "He was avant garde too, in his own way.... By the nature of his instrument, basically. People still don't understand the notes of Smith or can catch on to him. He was so far-fetched, so far away from jazz. Not for the main people, not for the people that are inside, but even for people that are in my neighborhood [Bang grew up in The Bronx]. I had never heard of Stuff Smith. It took me a long time. You would hear Papa John Creach before you'd hear of Stuff Smith. You would actually hear Ray Nance before you'd hear Stuff Smith. So he was outside of that medium, somehow."

Smith's career certainly did not follow a mainstream path. Born Hezekiah Leroy Gordon Smith in 1909, he became known in the 1920s but only achieved fame after some 1930s recordings with his Onyx Club Orchestra featuring his comic vocalizing struck the public fancy. This seems to have led to critics not taking him seriously (Louis Jordan suffered much the same fate), and Smith is often left out of jazz reference books. Those that do mention him, however, are properly respectful of his violin skills and even seem aware of how far ahead of his time he was, instrumentally and musically; one book refers to "cross-beat multiplications" as an integral element of his style.

Now having finally recorded his Stuff tribute, which had shown up onstage before being committed to tape, Bang says, "It was a great opportunity for me to get a chance to showcase how I feel and how I can handle a traditional song but still 'a la Bang,' because I hear these same songs played, like `Satin Doll,' by a million different guys, and basically to me they all sound the same: the same clich├ęs or solos, the same licks, the same turnaround. I anticipate what's going to happen and sure enough, it happens. I try to approach it through what I believe and how I interpret it, but still sticking to tradition. The chord changes are the same, bridges, 32 bars, etc., etc. So it's really pulling two different sides, two different angles together, and what really enhances that is being able to do it with Sun Ra."

When it came time to go into the studio, Bang knew who to call in as the perfect foil. He says the presence of Sun Ra functioned "like a physical passing of the baton, and it's like a real physical touch thing--Sun Ra played with Stuff Smith. And I have no connections over there, emotional and musical and all that. And to be playing with a person who played with one of my heros...it's like a real type of a bond. And actually to play one of the same songs that Sun Ra played with him, caught me by surprise, because I didn't know whether we were gonna do that or not. I came back from lunch and saw it on my music stand, 'Deep Purple.'" Ra's collaboration with Smith on that standard can be heard on Evidence Records' CD reissue of Sound Sun Pleasure as a bonus track. Believed to be the earliest recording of Sun Ra yet released, it was probably laid down in 1953 or '54 in Ra's home.

John Ore and Andrew Cyrille were hardly afterthoughts in the quartet; both have famously served time playing for strong-minded pianists, Ore with Thelonious Monk and Cyrille with Cecil Taylor. Ore has since played with Ra, too, and Cyrille and Bang have frequently teamed, so this session group had a headstart in cohesion.

Bang himself has played in the Sun Ra Arkestra, if not as soon as he could have. After he finished his tour in Vietnam, Arkestra member Jack Jackson tried to get Bang to join. Having just gotten out of one army, Bang did not immediately jump into another sort of army. Eventually, though, he did join the Arkestra and don the robe and headpiece; he has photos of himself thus attired, playing electric hollow-body violin with the Arkestra in 1981. That experience, although different from playing with Ra in a small group, helped prepare Bang for this session.

"I only played with Sun Ra in a big band. But now I'm faced with Sun Ra at one-on-one, almost. And that did put a lot of weight on me. I always knew how deep Sun Ra is. He comes out of an era I know nothing about, his voicings, everything. He was playing some Scott Joplin, too. So luckily I had been around Sun Ra enough to get enough courage and confidence up to deal with him directly. It was one of the most profound things I had to do musically. It's kind of like being a gunslinger going one-on-one with Ra. He knows what he's doing. I'll give you an example. There's one song called `The Bugle Blues' that has that trumpet intro, but Stuff Smith played it on violin. They used to play that record in Chicago and Detroit to wake people up in the morning on radio stations. Right there [at the end of the intro], for me, was the top of the song. That was the intro, detached from the song. What Sun Ra did was, he definitely counted that introduction, four bars, and when we came in on one, that was the fifth bar. He wasn't going to hear anything else. He had the first solo, so when he hit the top of that bar, which was the fifth bar, then he played up to twelve bars, eight more bars to play, then we're back to the top. So he wanted to go from five to twelve, then from one to twelve. We took a long time, but when we finally figured it out, he was correct. And that's the kind of person he is, that's what he is.

"On some other songs," Bang continues, "I thought he was bringing in the bridge a little too soon in some places. But then I realized later that that's really Sun Ra's style. Because the first time I heard him was this church in Washington, D.C., the first time I really heard Sun Ra play with the time, it was there, but he was kind of in his own time frame. But the thing is, what I had John Ore do was keep counting with us and come right in. So sometimes we came in before he finished his statement, because I wanted to really maintain the structure. Somehow it didn't hurt the structure for him just to be Sun Ra. That's why I had to really utilize confidence and courage, because normally I would allow Sun Ra to finish his statement, and wherever he ended, I would come in, wherever that is. It might not be the first bar at the top, it might be the third bar. But I didn't want to give that much room up, for the sake of the music. So it was kind of push and pull, the whole thing, but it was done in such a mellow way that it was a kind of a non-antagonistic appreciation of that. And it's always been that case for Sun Ra, even when I'm in the band, always. You've got to respect him."

On this recording, Sun Ra showed he had adjusted to playing in the wake of his stroke, deploying Monkish chords and finding complexity in simplicity during his solos. Listen to the first Ra solo of the album, on "Only Time Will Tell." Almost any pianist could play it--but only Ra would think of it. And while comping under Bang, Ra turns the music inside out with his off-kilter rhythms and harmonies. Bang is hardly overshadowed, spinning out inventive yet swinging, structurally sound lines. With Ore's fat bass sound and Cyrille's pointillistic drumming providing a rock-solid but supremely flexible rhythm section, the liberties Ra likes to take are perfectly supported. The one-of-a-kind results speak for themselves.

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