11/17/08

Billy Bang & the Aftermath Band in Pittsburgh

The last time Billy Bang came to Pittsburgh, he played a university lecture hall in a trio with the late saxophonist Frank Lowe and drummer Abbey Rader, and less than 50 people were in the audience. This time he performed at a theater named for native sons Gene Kelly and Billy Strayhorn, located in a neighborhood where development is gradually overtaking the blight and bad architecture. The 349-seat Kelly-Strayhorn might have been only a little more than half full, but the mood in the room filled up the space.

Radio and television commentator Chris Moore emceed the evening, getting the audience excited by referencing the previous week’s election results, and spoke on the subject of Veteran’s Day, which the performance commemorated. Dressed in a veteran’s cap and jacket himself, Moore saluted fellow vets in the audience and plugged the concert’s organizers, the Kente Arts Alliance, repeatedly.

When Bang and his group took the stage, the violinist seemed as eager to discuss the albums Vietnam: The Aftermath and Vietnam: Reflections as he was to play the music. The project grew from a suggestion by Justin Time’s Jean-Pierre Leduc and has yielded two successful albums and a way for Bang to deal with emotions that have troubled him for nearly 40 years since his tour of Vietnam.

Bang’s backing group, the Aftermath Band, included two musicians who appeared on both of those albums, alto saxophonist/flutist James Spaulding and trumpeter Ted Daniel. Pianist Andrew Boehmke, bassist Todd Nicholson and drummer Newman Taylor Baker have been playing with him on recent tours. The group was completed by Nhan Thanh Ngo who played the dan tranh, a Vietnamese instrument that resembled both a lap steel and a sitar.

In the early sections of “Yo! Ho Chi Minh in the House,” Bang smiled, sitting on a stool by the piano, plucking his instrument like a guitar. Over the song’s steady groove, Boehmke unleashed a solo full of thunder that was contrasted by Daniel, who began his solo with a Harmon mute in the bell. After Spaulding’s flute got loud and shrill, Bang took the spotlight. He locked into a series of notes that he kept repeating before he began pushing the range limits of his instrument, as if he were reaching for notes that may or may not be on the neck. The look on his face revealed that the man who was all smiles a few minutes earlier was still dealing with personal demons, at least for the sake of a solo. And the bow be damned—Bang nearly shredded the horsehair as he scraped and wailed, evoking radio signal scratches in a fit of passion.

His look of intensity continued throughout the first set. “Moments for the KIAMIA” toned down the mood, with Nhan debuting lyrics to the melody. Bang, whose solo included an astounding triplet run, got caught up in the heat of the moment. During “Bien Hoa Blues,” his emotion was a little lighter, cheering Daniel on during his solo. Spaulding proved why he’s been one of the most underrated alto saxophonists for decades, tearing through a solo that put him in the same league with both Jackie McLean and Eric Dolphy.

Before the second set, the Alliance screened an excerpt from a film about Bang’s trip back to the forests of Vietnam, where he fought. Compelling as it was, it was almost too hard to watch as this proud, articulate man suddenly gets overwhelmed by his memories and asks to turn the camera off.

The footage was a fitting prologue to “Prayer for Peace,” a new composition whose theme Bang called the natural progression for him after both Vietnam albums. It moved slowly, with a rubato melody pinned by a bass drone that broke, after seven minutes, into a 6/8 groove. The entire piece lasted 20 minutes and not a note was wasted.

“Tunnel Rat (Flashlight and a .45)” took on greater depth after seeing the film of the actual tunnel in which Bang operated, and the highlight of piece came when Bang and Baker engaged in a fierce violin/drums duet that left the other band members standing around them in awe. “Reconciliation” gave the bow another wild workout, followed by solos by Daniel, who vocalized as he blew, and Spaulding, who wailed in the upper register of his alto.

When the second set ended with this tune’s final chord, the power of the music seemed to increase a couple of notches, making it hard not to rise up and give them an ovation. Which is exactly what the audience did.

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