Like many veterans, Billy Bang rarely spoke about his experiences as an Army squad leader during the Vietnam War once he came home. The memories haunted the prolific violinist, who has recorded numerous albums as a leader and performed as a sideman with the likes of Sun Ra and James "Blood" Ulmer. Many years later, prompted by Jean-Pierre Luduc of Justin Time Records, Bang attempted to exorcise his demons through a series of compositions inspired by the war.
"I believe that I had been writing that music for quite some time in my head," Bang says. Once he made the decision to create the 2001 album, entitled Vietnam: The Aftermath, the writing came naturally. "The most challenging part was to come forward with the music that was inside me," he says. "But by doing so, it was extremely therapeutic for me. When I was writing that music, I remember actually crying again and seeing the nightmares I'd been trying to get away from. But they were in front of me this time, while I was writing the music."
Vietnam: The Aftermath featured a strong lineup of jazz musicians -- many Vietnam veterans themselves -- working in a modern jazz format that borrowed harmonic elements of Asian music. While Bang's track record includes a fair amount of free blowing (or bowing, rather), only one track attempted to represent the tension with an unhinged structure. The rest of the album is composed of ballads, blues and even a little funk, so in addition to feeling intense, the disc has moments that are intensely beautiful.
Four years later, Bang released the follow-up, Vietnam: Reflections, which took the idea one step further. It incorporated the Vietnamese dulcimer and vocals into the music, and interwove traditional Vietnamese songs and Bang originals. He says his next album, as yet unreleased, moves off in another direction, though the subject matter is related.
"When I was thinking in terms of the war, it brought me to a more serene place in my mind [so I could] speak more about peace. I believe that was a natural progression," he says. The forthcoming disc will be called Prayer for Peace.
The Kente Arts Alliance is bringing Bang to town this weekend for a performance commemorating Veteran's Day, and featuring music from both Vietnam albums. His septet includes James Spaulding, whose muscular alto saxophone style has made him a coveted sideman for more than 40 years, having worked with Max Roach, Freddie Hubbard and (at a different time than Bang) Sun Ra.
Billy Bang & The Aftermath Band. 8 p.m. Sat., Nov. 8. Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, 5941 Penn Ave., East Liberty. $25 ($30 day of show). 412-322-0292 or www.proartstickets.org