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Billy Bang Quintet Featuring Frank Lowe: Above & Beyond

Not only is Above & Beyond another solid chronicle of violinist Billy Bang’s disparate yet cohesive musical universe, it should be viewed as the generally unheralded Frank Lowe’s swan song. As far as saxophonists in the post-Coltrane/Ayler mold go, Lowe succeeded in developing an original voice and approach, much like Marion Brown and Noah Howard. Bang evolved past impassioned blasts of sound to traverse an aural realm where blues and swing met avant-garde caterwauling, where unusual instrumentation played as significant a role as the standard brass/piano/bass/drums. Sadly, Lowe passed away from lung cancer in September 2003, five months after his last tour with Bang, when this album was recorded.

Documented live at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts in Grand Rapids, Mich., Above & Beyond features one Lowe composition-one of his admitted favorites, the exultant, bouncy “Nothing But Love”-and three Bang compositions (“Silent Observation,” “Dark Silhouette” and “At Play in the Fields of the Lord”), all based on highly infectious rhythms and melodic motifs. Though the musicians-pianist Andrew Bemkey, bassist Todd Nicholson and percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani complete the quintet-leap around the themes, exploring numerous melodic possibilities, they never stray too far from the songs’ strong foundations.

“At Play in the Fields of the Lord,” a syncopated scorcher lying somewhere between Hot Club of France swing and Brazilian jazz, features Bang at his best, furiously sawing away after setting the theme in unison with Lowe. The saxophonist is in fine form throughout, and you’d never know he was suffering from lung cancer from his controlled, lyrical playing and bursts of screaming joy. And above all, joy seems to be the set’s strongest emotion: The ensemble clearly overcame the impending demise of Lowe and performed each song with utmost conviction and sympathy, leaving a perfect legacy for Lowe.

Originally Published