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November 29-December 6, 2006

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Billy Bang

Big bang: Ritual Trio violinist Billy Bang had the Kuumbwa crowd roaring.


Out With a Bang

By Bill Forman

RITUAL MAGIC "What kind of world is it where Sonny Rollins doesn't have a major record deal?" asked Kahil El'Zabar, whose Ritual Trio ensemble had just finished what was surely one of the most impressive performances to grace the Kuumbwa stage.

The same question might easily be asked in regard to Pharoah Sanders (who has also played with El'Zabar), the Ritual Trio's stellar lineup (for Monday's performance, the group featured the supremely gifted violinist Billy Bang, bassist Yusef Ben Israel and, newly added to the tour, AACM saxophonist Rene McLean) and the extraordinarily kinetic drummer/percussionist/bandleader himself.

Born in Alabama and raised in Harlem, Billy Bang proved himself to be the most creative jazz violinist since Leroy Jenkins, shifting in the span of a single solo from conservatory to hoedown to musical realms imagined only by the likes of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. McLean responded in kind: His first solo on the opening number OOF (which El'Zabar dedicated to his mentor, the late Art Ensemble of Chicago bassist Malachi Favors) began with an extraordinary display of circular breathing and eventually led to him coaxing honks, squonks and Herculean runs that few would expect to emanate from a baritone sax.

Yet this was no free jazz blowfest, as El'Zabar used his percussive talents (channeled through kalimba, trap kit, grunts, singing and scatting), arranging skills and larger-than-life stage persona to keep the music focused and flowing.

El'Zabar ended up answering his own question. It's a world "where abusers are celebrated" and "the highlighting of the hierarchy of Machiavellian personalities" who prostitute the talents of others has got to stop. In spite of all that, El'Zabar insists that the vast majority of people are kind-hearted and, united together, can bring about positive change. After such a contagious, beguiling and inspiring performance, it was hard not to agree.

LET ABBEY ROAD REPRISE Santa Cruz's unrivaled Beatles revivalists, the White Album Ensemble, will reprise their acclaimed Let Abbey Road Be concert at the Rio Theatre on the evening before New Year's Eve. The show, which, as the name suggests, brings to life the group's Let It Be and Abbey Road albums, made its debut at the Santa Cruz venue for two packed nights this past spring. It was then taken to Monterey, where former Beatles engineer Alan Parsons paid a backstage visit, as well as to San Jose, where the band was invited back for a return engagement. Of the show's return to Santa Cruz, White Album Ensemble keyboardist Dale Ockerman says, "I guess it falls under the category of a 'local holiday tradition' like The Nutcracker or something." Plus, the Dec. 30 date means you can get into the New Year's spirit without having to kiss a bunch of drunken colleagues at midnight.

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