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Billy Bang - Prayer for Peace

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Artist: Billy Bang

Album: Prayer for Peace

Label: Tum

Review date: Jul. 21, 2010

Every new release from composer and violinist Billy Bang is a cause for celebration; to see this new quintet album presented so beautifully by Petri Hausila’s Tum label is doubly gratifying. Prayer for Peace is a typically diverse offering from Bang, whose vast experience with everything swinging and funky is reflected in his playing and in his compositions. Beyond that, homage and reflection are brought together in whimsical playfulness and profound seriousness.

This is the first documentation of the quintet Bang has employed over the last five years, which features pianist Andrew Bemkey, bassist Todd Nicholson, trumpeter James Zollar and drummer Newman Taylor-Baker. All have worked in many different environments, and their collective experience makes them ideal interpreters of this music. The title track is a case in point, and it brings all of the album’s threads together. The 20-minute tripartite suite moves from the stillness and meterless calm that Bang associates with peace in his liner notes, through a slowly swinging series of solos, and back. Though not mentioned in the notes, I hear continual references to Coltrane’s “Naima” and “Alabama,” the latter’s form being very similar. Bang’s melody is modal but bright, performed by Bang and Zollar as if they were one instrument, so in sync is their phrasing and vibrato. Bemkey’s playing is of particular interest here; never overstated, it’s as if he pulls each note and sonority out of what his bandmates contribute, allowing each gesture time to breathe before initiating the next. Their collective long-breathed invocations lend the meditative opening and closing sections an aura of spirituality, while the middle section’s motion seems almost parenthetical in hindsight.

While any homage on the title track may be subtextual, Stuff Smith and Sun Ra are each given a tune in tribute. Smith’s composition, “Only Time will Tell,” receives a second Bang recording, featuring an extremely energetic solo by the ever-imaginative Bang and a razor-sharp one from Zollar. Sun Ra played with Smith, not to mention playing keyboards on Bang’s first recording of “Only Time will Tell,” so it is fitting that Bang’s “Jupiter’s Future” be included. It features one of those playfully infectious melodies Mr. Ra conjured so effortlessly, and the band launches joyfully into the groove. Nicolson and Taylor-Baker propel everything with vitality, Bemkey laying out at times to let the others stretch.

There’s also the laid-back funk of “Dance of the Manakin” and the Latin grooves of “At Play in the Fields of the Lord” and a reworking of “Chan Chan,” the latter two graced by veteran percussionists Milton Cardona and Joe Gonzalez. As with everything on Tum, the mixing and engineering is impeccable. This means that every detail is clear, from the unified group sound to the smallest nuance in Nicholson’s arco work. Prayer for Peace is a wonderful statement from a group with a singular vision.

By Marc Medwin

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