Billy Bang: Vietnam: Reflections (2005)
On the second installment of his Vietnam trilogy, following the highly acclaimed Vietnam: The Aftermath (Justin Time, 2001), violinist Billy Bang continues the healing process. His great achievement is not only personal, having faced the demons of that bloody and futile war as a GI, but also musical as well. Bang succeeds in transforming the harrowing experiences of terror and war into a profound musical document that combines the fluidity and the swing of a hard bop jazz band with the modal angularity of Vietnamese folk songs, creating a provocative yet accessible blend.
Five Vietnam veterans accompany Bang: trumpeter Ted Daniel, drummer Michael Carvin, percussionist Ron Brown, flutist Henry Threadgill, and conductor Butch Morris. Also on board are pianist John Hicks, bassist Curtis Lundy, and reed player James Spaulding, plus two Vietnamese-born musicians who currently live in the US: Nhan Thanh Ngo, who plays the the dan tranh, a traditional finger-plucked dulcimer, and singer Co Boi Nguyen.
Bang declares his cross-cultural vision on the opening track, "Reflections," which gently interweaves Hicks' blues eloquence, powerful solos by Bang and Daniel, and folky Vietnamese elements into a beautiful, anthem-like theme. This is followed by the sweet and simple traditional Vietnamese lullaby "Ru Con," where Bang's pizzicato playing accompanies Nguyen's singing and Ngo's dan tranh. "Lock and Load" blends angular Asian modality with funky basslines, complemented by Daniel's swinging solo, Hicks' gospel-tinged pianism, and a passionate solo by Bang.
Bang and Brown introduce a jazz sensibility into the traditional Vietnamese song "Ly Ngua O" (Black Horse), which describes a bridegroom taking his new wife from her wedding in a horse-drawn carriage. "Doi Moi" (named after Vietnam's late-'80s "open door" political policy) is a beautiful and graceful dirge that presents some great improvisation by Bang, Hick, and Lundy.
"Reconcilation 1" and "Reconcilation 2" uses Morris' spontaneous system of conduction to combine the jazz players and the Vietnamese musicians into a collective improvisation that moves between controlled and intense playing of the folky melody to a percussive climax through a series of exceptional solos. Bang also uses Vietnamese motifs on "Waltz of the Water Puppets," a title that refers to an elaborate Vietnamese theatrical tradition; the piece features arresting unison playing by Bang and Spaulding (on flute). Brown's hand percussion spices the traditional Vietnamese song "Trong Com" (Rice Drum), associated with the rice harvest festival in Vietnam's northern delta.
Bang has already planned the third part in this trilogy, a performance with the Vietnamese national symphony that will bring together musicians who previously fought against each other in order to create a life-affirming substance of music. Until that comes out, we can enjoy this precious gem that affirms the compassionate power of music to heal, connect, and pacify.
Track Listing: Reflections; Ru Con; Lock & Load; Ly Ngua O; Doi Moi; Reconciliation 1; Waltz Of The Water Puppets; Trong Com; Reconciliation 2.
Personnel: Billy Bang: violin; Butch Morris-conductor; Ron Brown: percussion; Ted Daniel: trumpet; Henry Threadgill: flute; James Spaulding: alto saxophone and flute; Co Boi Nguyen: vocalist; Nhan Thanh Ngo: dan tranh; John Hicks: piano; Curtis Lundy: bass; Michael Carvin: drums.