Sweet Space/Untitled Gift
8th Harmonic Breakdown HB 8005/6

Fusion of two Billy Bang LPs originally issued on the Anima label plus four previously unreleased tracks, this two-CD set proves once again that a lot of excellent, advanced music was being made out of the media spotlight in the late 1970s/early 1980s.

While the focus then may have been on the discredited jazz-rock movement and emerging Young Lions, Free Jazz/Loft Movement veterans like Bang and crew were obstinately cutting out-of-the-ordinary sessions that, like Julius Hemphill and David Murray’s records of the time, contained basic swing roots fused with atonal solos.

Backing came from musicians who had been and would be influential into the 21st century. SWEET SPACE features pianist Curtis Clark, now an expatriate in the Netherlands; early Art Ensemble associate drummer Steve McCall (1933-1989); plus then cornetist, and later conductionist Butch Morris, and his late (1937-2002) brother, bassist Wilber. Sax duties are divided between altoist Luther Thomas formerly of the Black Arts Group (BAG) in St. Louis, now another European expatriate, and Memphis-born tenorman Frank Lowe, who co-led the Jazz Doctors band with Bang before his death in 2003.

UNTITLED GIFT features only Bang, bassist Morris, drummer Dennis Charles (1933-1998), a Free Jazz pioneer who played with Cecil Taylor around the same time in the 1950s when the quartet’s final member, Don Cherry (1936-1995) on pocket trumpet, flute and bells, first became a member of Ornette Coleman’s legendary group.

Find of the session is SWEET SPACE’s four additional tracks, which boost the first disc to nearly 76 minutes. More historical than musically interesting — although they do add to Thomas and Lowe’s relatively sparse discography — they’re alternate versions of the issued tracks with slightly different solos. You can note the relative position of the Free Jazzers compared to the major label-associated fusioneers and neo-cons, though. Sound on this session, recorded live in 1979 at NYU’s student center, is somewhat wonky compared to what big time labels provided. Both versions of “A Pebble is a Small Rock” and “Loweski for Frank” feature off-mic saxophone solos that are almost obliterated by Charles’ booming drums in the foreground.

That shouldn’t discourage listeners though, since the first piece, a sort of New Thing rondo has one of the catchiest heads you’ll hear outside of a late night session of Kansas City jazz, while the second highlight’s Butch Morris’ burgeoning skill as an arranger.

Following a dedicated preamble by Wilber Morris that feeds into a Swing piano line, the initially released version of “A Pebble” introduces the riffing theme with triple counterpoint from saxes, cornet and violin. As the piece unrolls in both versions, the lines keep circling back to the initial contrapuntal theme. With Clark comping behind him, Bang’s first solo quickly evolves from floating, legato to syncopated ponticello lines. Thomas than provides his variations, all irregular altissimo timbres, and before Lowe’s impressive, but distantly recorded string of highly arpeggiated screeches and slurs, Clark appends dynamics with a light touch. Bisecting each solo is a return to tremolo variations on the theme. The main difference between this one and the previously unreleased version is a shot postlude consisting of a bass and drums shuffle and a lyrical piano interlude.

Harsh counterpoint from the front line above bass and drum riffs make an even closer connection between the unreleased version of “Pebble” and some of BAG founder Hemphill’s compositions that are atonal, yet bluesy. Lowe’s honks and whistling smears are more pronounced, if no louder here, as are abstract, locked-hand patterns from Clark. Ending with a final, foot-tapping reprise of the theme, atonal polyphony from all hands, leads to protracted audience applause.

Both versions of the title track mate wah-wah cornet lines with mosquito-droning jettes from the violin that presage ferocious, overblown sax solos with hocketing strings and background militaristic drumbeats. As Bang foreshortens his upper partials for timbres that sound like duck quacks, Lowe peeps out split tones. Morris’ rippling muted brass squeaks are more prominent on the previously released version of the tune as are Bang’s double stops. There are times, in fact, when the orchestration resembles the violinist’s “Outline No. 12”, recorded in 1982 with a 12-piece ensemble including Lowe, Murray and the two Morrises. That composition’s repetitive motif, which may have had its genesis in this piece, also heralded Anthony Braxton’s later series of Ghost Trance compositions.

Twenty or so years ago however, Morris was more of a player than a conductor as he demonstrates on the two versions of “Loweski for Frank”. His high-pitched solos include descending triplets and whinnies, not to mention points where his open horn lead could take its place in a Dixieland ensemble. Bang double and triple stops with a syncopated undercurrent, sort of like a modern version of his early idol Stuff Smith, while the rhythm section vamps like updated Count Basie small group.

Partnered with a completely different pocket trumpet man on UNTITLED GIFT, who also plays yokube flute, congas and bells, Bang reveals a hitherto unacknowledged folkloric bent. Of course by 1982, Cherry had spent at least a decade attuning himself to different world musics, and this unaltered reissued CD reflects that. As nods to both Cherry’s past and present the disc include two Coleman tunes, two by Bang and one by the brassman himself.

Instructively, Cherry’s effort, “The Kora Song” sounds no more or less ethnic than anything else on the CD. Plus Bang and Morris’ combined eight strings are still 13 short of the harp-like kora — although between the fiddler’s gentle, yet distinctive jettes and the bassist’s rhythmic strength they easily approximate the African harp’s intricate style. At the same time, Cherry’s flattish, wavering tremolo-tongued lead owes more to the trumpeter’s Los Angles upbringing than Lagos griots.

Despite Charles’ Virgin Island birth and fondness for traditional Caribbean melodies, his work throughout, especially in his introductory solo on Bang’s nearly 12-minute “Maat”, is strictly improv. On that cut, his snare’s rolls and rebound plus bass drum pressure that uses positioned foot pedals is this side of hard bop, while Morris adds a walking bass line. Breaking out from initial front-line tremolo multiphonics — with double and triple stopped staccato syncopation — Cherry follows with triplet bounces and echoes, then plays a bebop riff that’s picked up and mutated with plucked lower-pitched variations by the bassist. Rim shot action and a drum tattoo from Charles softens into unison trumpet and violin harmonics that reprise the theme.

Oddly, it’s Bang’s transparently titled “Echovamp 1678” that sounds most like so-called World Music. Marked by an almost danceable beat, plus miscellaneous bells and percussion echoes, the tune evolves from a prelude of unison screeching multiphonics to arching wiggling triplets from the fiddler. Soon exotic, bird-whistling counter harmonies arise from Cherry to meet Bang’s solo that’s more dulcet than usual. That doesn’t last long since the slurred, metallic string clips he produces make it appear as if he’s playing the erhu or two-stringed Chinese fiddle. When Bang completes his constriction of the scale, the tune slows down to moderato, with the quartet cooperation suggesting Cherry’s tenure with Coleman — with the violinist in the Coleman role.

Bang’s violin playing would never be confused for Ornette’s though, as he proves on those two Coleman tunes, using extra bow pressure to stretch the partials.

At the same time, these short, but respectful run-throughs aren’t the be-all and end-all of the session as they would be on many discs by Young Lions that appeared during that time.

In contrast to those, SWEET SPACE/UNTITLED GIFT proves once again that you may have to hunt to hear the best music. Since these sorts of sounds stands the test of time, sessions like these can also be appreciated years after they were made.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Sweet Space: 1. Previously Unreleased Version of A Pebble is a Small Rock 2. Previously Unreleased Version of Sweet Space 3. Previously Unreleased Version of Loweski for Frank (T.F.R.) 4. Previously Unreleased Version of Music For The Love of It 5. A Pebble is a Small Rock 6. Sweet Space 7. Loweski for Frank (T.F.R.) 8. Music For The Love of It

Track Listing: Untitled Gift: 1. Echovamp 1678 2. The Kora Song 3. Maat 4. Levitation for Santana 5. Focus on Sanity

Personnel: Sweet Space: Butch Morris (cornet); Luther Thomas (alto saxophone); Frank Lowe (tenor saxophone); Billy Bang (violin); Curtis Clark (piano); Wilber Morris (bass); Steve McCall (drums)

Personnel: Untitled Gift: Don Cherry (pocket trumpet, flute and bells); Billy Bang (violin, yokube flute, congas and bells); Wilber Morris (bass); Dennis Charles (drums)