Album review: Billy Bang’s ‘Prayer for Peace’

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A jazz veteran who has collaborated with Sun Ra, Don Cherry and Sam Rivers as well as leading his own ensembles, violinist Billy Bang (born Billy Walker in 1947) may not be a household name. Yet listeners who might ordinarily shy away from the at-times turbulent world of free jazz shouldn’t miss this recording, a rewarding and often gorgeous record that hopefully will remedy Bang’s comparatively low profile. Though jazz violin is a relative rarity (New York’s eclectic Jenny Scheinman and our own Jeff Gauthier immediately come to mind), “Prayer for Peace” is as much about Bang’s compositional verve and nimble backing band as it is his instrument. Opening with a cover of “Only Time Will Tell” by fellow jazz violinist Stuff Smith, Bang’s quintet swings with such understated elegance that it’s easy to imagine the song turning up in the jazz-mad HBO series “Treme.”

Bang’s tastes run too eclectic to stay in one style long. Rising out of a clockwork groove from bassist Todd Nicholson and pianist Andrew Bemkey, “Dance of the Manakin” is a slowly escalating study in joyfully adventurous jazz-funk. In addition to touching on Monkish bop with “Jupiter’s Future,” Bang also showcases a deft hand with Latin jazz on “At Play in the Fields of the Lord,” which builds to a swerving, sawing violin crescendo, and Compay Segundo’s Cuban classic “Chan Chan” gets a fairly straightforward reworking with some bawdy trumpet work from James Zollar.


But it’s the album’s title track that leaves the greatest impression. The song’s nearly 20-minute run time coasts by in a blink, with every movement evolving into the next with a lush, captivating grace reminiscent of “A Love Supreme.” Some might still call it avant-garde, but leave it to a man who took his name from a cartoon to prove labels don’t mean a thing.

— Chris Barton

Billy Bang
“Prayer for Peace”
TUM Records
Three stars (Out of four)

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