…sounding as fresh and exciting as it did upon its original release.
The Billy Bang Quartet Sessions 1983/1984
Cadillac SGCCD 020
Billy Bang (violin); Frank Lowe (tenor saxophone); Rafael Garrett (bass); Dennis Charles (drums) Recorded 8, 15 &17 November 1983
Billy Bang (violin); Frank Lowe (tenor saxophone); Wilbur Morris (bass); Thurman Barker (drums, piano) Recorded 23 October 1984
We are much indebted to John Jack, proprietor of Cadillac Records, for having the foresight to record The Jazz Doctors during their tour of the UK in 1983, and equally so that current owner Mike Gavin has re-issued the original album Intensive Care on CD for the first time.
In addition, we are also blessed in having the tracks that were to have made up the aborted second album from the band Prescription Filled on a subsequent tour the following year.
Nearly forty years on, Intensive Care remains an astonishing album capturing a band at the height of its collective powers. The music by the quartet is a staggering juxtaposition of the tradition and the new jazz that had been coming out of the American loft scene of the late sixties and seventies.
This was not free jazz in the sense that anything goes, but Freedom in that the music restrained a structure that however flexible was always present. The musicians had plenty of scope for expression within the music, but the collective identity and history of the music took precedent first and foremost.
Violinist Billy Bang and tenor saxophonist Frank Lowe were of similar ages but approached music from very different perspectives. Lowe was a seasoned professional having worked with Sun Ra and Alice Coltrane. He had also played an important role in the second wave of players that were to continue to take the New Music forward.
While Lowe was steeped in the tradition, Bang was a relatively new face on the scene, and perhaps lacking in some of the experience and theoretical knowledge of his peers. His technical ability on his instrument may have also been limited, he had not yet decided whether music was his calling, and yet played the violin was an intensity and individuality that was extremely potent.
Intensive Care therefore comes across with an explosive intensity and power that jumps out of the speakers. The front line of saxophone and violin make a glorious sound whether playing in a wonderfully loose unison or interweaving contrapuntal lines that dance around each other.
Coupled with the bass and drums axis of Rafael Garrett and Dennis Charles the music has an elasticity in the rhythm section that allows the music to flow.
This elasticity within the quartet as a unit is immediately felt in an exuberant version of Jackie McLean’s hard bop tune, ‘Little Melonae’. Propelled along by Garrett and Charles, the frontline dispatch with the theme in an almost casual manner before an exploratory solo from Frank Lowe that while with eyes firmly looking ahead also casts a backwards glance at the music that preceded him. Billy Bang however ploughs on ahead with his agenda markedly different from the tenorist in a sweeping opening solo.
‘Ballad With One L’ composed by Bang brings the quartet’ss freer mode of expression to the fore. The time is fragmented yet Garrett’s arco bass alongside the violin and tenor saxophone proves to be an extremely flexible ensemble full of subtle nuances and dynamics.
Garrett and Charles again set up ‘Spooning’ by Butch Morris with the strong rhythmic bass line that begins the piece and Charles’s Caribbean influenced drumming, and the pair also provide an explosive entry to ‘Loweology’ by the tenorist.
Blowing short staccato figures, Lowe almost defies the drive from bass and drums creating a tension that is palpable yet paradoxically fitting. Once again, the violinist lets fly with a flurry of notes that follow their own self-imposed logic.
Rashied Ali’s ‘Blood On The Cross’ features Charles’s powerful opening statement at the kit before the other three members of the quartet pitch in with a freewheeling collective improvisation before the drummer takes the tune out with an astonishingly compact solo before the final unison theme.
The album concludes with a superb reading of Ornette Coleman’s ‘Lonely Woman’ that ranks among the very best versions of the piece that I have heard, including that of Ornette himself. Perhaps this piece more than any other epitomises where the quartet come from and where the music they make is looking to aspire to. A truly collective performance that is jaw-droppingly profound.
The second half of the CD features previously unreleased tracks from a proposed follow up album for the quartet. To be released under the title Prescription Filled a recording session took place on 23 October 1984 yielding music that is quite different from that heard on Intensive Care.
With Garrett and Charles having been replaced by Wilbur Morris and Thurman Barker the feeling from the rhythm section is in stark contrast to what has been heard before.
The opening tracks by Billy Bang, ‘Suite for Gamma Pt 1’ and ‘Suite for Gamma Pt 2’ operate in an improvisatory role whereby the structure is clearly evident but in a constant state of flux. Billy Bang’s violin is as liquid as ever, but Lowe seems to have taken on a harder edge to his playing, and to my ears the bass and drums sound more rigid.
The two parts of the Suite run to approximately 22 minutes and one assumes would have taken up side one of the album.
The other three surviving titles from the session are all standards. Not surprising that the violinist would be interested in the music of Thelonious Monk, and the quartet turn in a suitably straight forward reading of the theme.
However, it is the solos that reveal the delights with Lowe’s tenor solo exhibiting a firm grasp of Monk’s harmonic language while the violinist produces a solo that would not have sounded out of place jamming with the Quintette du Hot Club de France fifty years earlier.
In comparison the version of John Coltrane’s ‘Mr Syms’ fails to ignite despite another fine solo from Bang and a well paced outing from Frank Lowe, but the overall feeling that the quartet are holding back prevails.
No such problem with ‘Pent Up Suite’ by Sonny Rollins, as Lowe’s dives straight into his solo that twists and turns with melodic fragments and motifs that he weaves into a cohesive musical statement. The violinist also relishes the changes presented here and with the rhythm section swinging hard delivers another excellent solo.
Further tracks were recorded at the October ‘84 session but their whereabouts remain unknown. Quite how the second album would have ultimately been presented will never be known, but these additional titles provide a fitting coda to Billy Bang and Frank Lowe’s forward looking quartet and the London adventure that John Jack was so insistent on recording.
Having bought a copy of the original Intensive Care LP nearly forty years ago, I for one am indebted to Cadillac for reissuing the music on a double LP or single CD and sounding as fresh and exciting as it did upon its original release.
Reviewed by Nick Lea