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Music Review: Billy Bang Quintet with Frank Lowe – Above & Beyond: An Evening in Grand Rapids

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Violinist Billy Bang and tenor saxophonist Frank Lowe shared a musical bond that evoked John Lewis’ famous description of Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry – “They’re almost like twins” – to the very end of their 25-plus-year collaboration. Above & Beyond represents that end: their last recording together (possibly Lowe’s last, period; it’s certainly the last to have surfaced yet). When it was recorded in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in April 2003, Lowe had been battling lung cancer for years, was down to one lung, and was blowing anyway. He’d be dead within five months. His last request was that Bang make this recording available… thus giving us this marvelous, moving, enthralling, baffling CD.

Though the nominal leader and author of three of the four tracks, it’s unfair to regard Bang as anything but a co-leader with Lowe. Indeed, in many ways it’s Lowe’s show: On two tracks he takes the first solo, and both times his is the most compelling; on a third (“At Play in the Fields of the Lord”), he’s at least as good as Bang, his lyrical, subtly rhythmic (yet joyful) solo a foil to the violinist’s impassioned, folk-inspired one. The notion that Lowe was playing such sublime saxophone with only one lung should be unthinkable.

Also, Lowe’s sole contribution here – “Nothing But Love,” his favorite of his own tunes – is the most perfect moment on the record. It’s a modal piece, masterfully syncopated and slightly funky; Lowe’s earlier recordings of it (on 1995’s Bodies & Soul and 2000’s Short Tales) have tended toward the freer domains, but here it’s anchored by an Afro-Cuban groove and pianist Andrew Bemkey’s assured, heavy touch. With both the saxophonist and Bang turning out highly thematic solos, the track is blissfully melodic and so convincingly retro-‘60s that only the high fidelity demonstrates that it’s not a transfer from an ancient Delmark master. It’s also spellbinding, with melody, improvisations, and especially the unison of tenor and violin building into a sense of powerful mystery – like that of a snake charmer.

However, the centerpiece of Above & Beyond is unquestionably the 24-minute “Dark Silhouette.” Five of those 24 minutes are an ornate, Satie-meets-Ellington piano introduction, which then collides with a hypnotic ostinato rhythm put forth by thoughtfully emphatic bassist Todd Nicholson and drummer Tatsuya Nakatani (who may know more about creating drama with just a tom and hi-hat than most film directors do with a state-of-the-art soundstage). When Bang and Lowe enter on a moody, introspective theme that harmonizes with the bass vamp, the track could almost be a background from a Mancini score.

Bang changes that: His solo has the scholarly command of a solo classical recital, yet the spontaneous gait and trajectory that only exists in jazz. He blazes through melodic ideas, then changes course and slides his bow frenetically into the upper-register, hemming and hawing his way back into key. Lowe picks up from Bang’s last fading note, returning the piece to a slinky film-noir atmosphere as he tramps through low-end variations on the main melody with a steady, tiptoeing use of space, occasionally working his way into unbearably tense squawks and whispers. Naktani’s solo then nearly causes heart failure, building suspense as he shaves gradually down to no sound at all save bell and bass drum, then runs up to a breathtaking cymbal crescendo that brings back the melody. Never quite the summit of material and performance that is “Nothing But Love,” “Dark Silhouette” is the bolder performance, a tension-and-release masterpiece.

The baffling aspect of Above & Beyond is the band’s billing. As mentioned, the “Billy Bang Quintet Featuring Frank Lowe” by all rights should be the “Billy Bang/Frank Lowe Quintet” here; however, it’s incomprehensible that Andrew Bemkey doesn’t get the second-line billing that Lowe now has. By no means a name player, the Indiana native has a growing Downtown reputation and a unique, aggressive style. By accident or design this album is an important showcase for him. In fact, Bemkey is the most adventurous musician present, dropping bright, sudden splashes of sound into his thick chords and polytonal runs. This is a pianist to keep your eye on.

It’s a wonder to think how far the two leads have come in their work together. In 1978, Lowe was a free-jazz firebrand, and Bang a coolly cerebral avant-garde player – they complemented each other. Over the years , though never abandoning post-bop, they grew as close musically as they did personally; they sounded more and more like old friends jamming together. The album title perhaps refers to where Frank Lowe went in September 2003, but it also refers to the manner in which he left the musical world. If these old friends, these almost-twins, had to say goodbye, there was no more more glorious way to do it than Above & Beyond.

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About Michael J. West