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Billy Bang - Above & Beyond: An Evening in Grand Rapids

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Artist: Billy Bang

Album: Above & Beyond: An Evening in Grand Rapids

Label: Enja / Justin Time

Review date: Apr. 26, 2007

The friendship and fellowship between Frank Lowe and Billy Bang had the depth and resilience of a brotherly bond. Both did traumatic tours of duty in Vietnam. Both were bitten by the New Thing bug and made their mark as young comers on the New York loft jazz scene of the 1970s. Lowe offered Bang a spot in his band when the latter was scuffling for gigs. Bang returned the favor years later when Lowe fell on hard times. That fraternal reciprocity informed their playing together as well, the timbres of electric violin and tenor sax weaving in a close tonal braid while sustaining a persistent fealty to melody. The pair collaborated frequently over the years, but their resultant discography together is relatively small. A live date recorded at an intimate gig in Grand Rapids, Above & Beyond documents a latter-day Lowe, somewhat slowed by age and infirmity, guesting with Bang's regular quartet. Pianist Andy Bemkey heads up the rhythm section of bassist Todd Nicholson and drummer Tatsuya Nakatani.

There isn't much new in the way of songbook and the set's four tunes are familiar territory for the frontline duo. Bemkey's keys come through loud and clear and his method behind them is a scintillating amalgam of styles that recalls Monk in the oblique reference to hoary stride forms. Why he's yet to record as a leader beyond self-produced CDRs is an ongoing mystery and one I find quite baffling. His unaccompanied preface to Bang's "Dark Silhouette” accentuates his prowess in miniature and is the best part of the track. The ensemble remainder stretches to a prolix 20-plus minutes and hinges on a seemingly endless bass ostinato. Nicholson and Nakatani fulfill their parts well, but the former shoulders a bit too much amplification in places, his stout lines stiffening and losing some of their tractability. Lowe glides and saunters, interjecting expressive honks and squeals for effect, but leaving the major firecrackers to Bang, who repeatedly engages in his usual string sawing gesticulations. A highpoint is the faithful and tender treatment of Lowe's signature song, "Nothing But Love." The two men phrase the optimistic theme in unison repeatedly before veering off into divergent solos, Bang garrulous and mercurial, Lowe more measured and introspective. The rhythm team is inspired here, too, playfully spicing its support with subtle Latin accents.

Today, Lowe is nearly four years gone and Bang is still scuffling to make financial ends meet. This set is a welcome reminder of how crucial friendship is to making one's way in the world.

By Derek Taylor

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