You’d think that violinist Billy Bang’s roots in the jazz avant-garde would pay off on an album built around the theme of his Vietnam War experiences. Yet if this disc had been recorded, say, 25 years ago it would probably have drawn more of its thrust and heft from the edgier and even discomforting aspects of free jazz. But Bang — like a lot of avant-gardists who came to realize that the long haul meant making peace with the tradition — abandoned the barricades years ago for the well-rounded approach of a little blues, a little bop, a little mature dissonance (although, this being a collection of original compositions, we’re spared a little Ellington, a little Monk). And that’s not a bad thing — it’s an entertaining album — but sometimes the sense of pulling back from a strong statement makes the listener feel like he’s being unnecessarily coddled. For example, “TET Offensive” sounds like equal parts group improv and the staggered reading of a well-organized composition; it conveys a sense of foreboding before giving way to a quiet section where Bang makes his most impressive statement on the disc — off-center, passionate, lyrical and touched with grief.
Whatever the format, Bang remains an impressive player with a percussive attack that he often uses to ratchet up the intensity, as on “Tunnel Rat (Flashlight and a 45).” What’s more, tonally eccentric tenor saxophonist Frank Lowe, trumpeter Ted Daniel and Sonny Fortune (sticking to flute here) all offer short but sweet solo spots. But if you’re looking for something a little more challenging, try to find a copy of The Revolutionary Ensemble’s Vietnam (recorded in ‘72), featuring an even more visionary jazz-oriented violinist, Leroy Jenkins.
E-mail Richard C. Walls at [email protected].