Nor the fall of the Taliban. Nor the invasion of Iraq.
In fact, American military actions from the end of the War in Vietnam until the start of the War on Terror were relatively brief and contained. Exit strategies were a part of the planning process from 1975 until 2003, even for the liberation of Kuwait. But 9/11 destroyed Americans’ innocent sense of security, along with a number of other rights and values taken for granted.
However, Bang’s follow-up CD doesn’t revisit with anger and guilt his experiences in Vietnam experiences that started with the intensity of a fire fight on his second day in the country and didn’t let up throughout his tour of duty there.
Bang’s initial confrontation with his feelings about the war occurred at the suggestion of Justin Time producer Jean-Pierre Leduc, who perceptively realized that Bang’s inability to discuss the horrors of war could be expiated through music.
And so, Sergeant William Vincent Walker (in junior high school, nicknamed Billy Bang after a cartoon character) recruited for that project fellow jazz musicians who also had served in Vietnam: Specialist 4th Class Ted Daniel on trumpet, Specialist 4th Class Frank Lowe on tenor sax, Specialist 4th Class Ronald Brown on percussion, Specialist 4th Class Michael Carvin on drums, and Specialist 5th Class Lawrence D. Morris as conductor.
Thus, Vietnam - The Aftermath, the recording that Bang avoided for 30 years due to his feelings of insufficiency for capturing the enormity of its terror, comprised a reconciliation with his experience a determination no longer to avoid its discussion and no longer to substitute liquor and drugs for a vanquishing of the demons that interrupted his sleep for decades. As Bang said, "By allowing these awkward and unfathomable feelings to lie dormant in some deep dark place, I was able to tolerate my frankly vegetative way of living."
Bang confronted the Tet Offensive with an aggressive, abstract piece that depicted the confusion and fear at the time. "Tunnel Rat," with a hard swing and contrasting Vietnamese musical vocabulary of plucked strings and crashing cymbal, described Bang’s experiences in the underground tunnels that he explored to make regions safe from surprise attack for his fellow soldiers. And "Moments For The KIAMIA" was an elegy, emotionally played on violin, for Bang’s friends who didn’t return from Vietnam and whose absence represented a loss he couldn’t shake.
The result was one of the most acclaimed jazz albums of 2001, and rightly so. For as part of Bang’s catharsis, he had created a combination of musical genres from a clash of cultures that was unlike any other album of that year.... or of any other. In the process, Bang had found a new voice for his violin, one that captured the harmonies and timbre of the Vietnamese music he heard, and he advanced beyond the jazz work that he had played throughout his career into new musical territory.
Vietnam - The Aftermath worked. As a result of expressing through music the submerged emotions, Bang finally "recovered the innocence of my spirit and soul again." The healing had begun. Finally, he was ready to move on.
Four years later, Vietnam: Reflections reflects a different attitude about the war.... and a sense of inner peace that eluded Bang on Vietnam - The Aftermath. Leduc’s ingenious suggestion not only had been the genesis for an astounding work by a few artists who had fought in the war, but also it changed Bang’s life for the better after years of avoidance. Now that Bang has had the chance to contemplate the issues created by the war, and now that U.S.-Vietnamese relations have normalized, he has taken the next step of coming to terms. Rather than expressing anger and horror, Bang has recorded a message of peace. The message itself, for the first time, includes Vietnamese song and instrument, rather than Americans imitating on Western instruments the music they heard. Julliard student Co Boi Nguyen sings some traditional Vietnamese ceremonial and folk songs, like the lullaby "Ru Con," and she’s backed by Nhan Thanh Ngo, Saigon born and a New York computer expert, on dan tranh, the traditional Vietnamese dulcimer.
Bang has retained most of the same group from the first album (including John Hicks on piano and Curtis Lundy on bass). However, Bang’s long-time colleague and friend Frank Lowe passed away in 2003. As a result, Bang added James Spaulding on alto saxophone and flute. And Vietnam veteran Henry Threadgill appears once to play flute on "Reflections," a tune that successfully merges jazz harmonies, particularly as developed by Hicks, and Vietnamese melody. After Bang has completed his reflections, much of the CD includes acceptance of the contributions of Vietnamese culture and an appreciation for its music. "Ly Ngua O" ("Black Horse") honors Vietnamese wedding traditions, as sung by Nguyen in counterpoint with Bang on violin, while Carvin develops the animating rhythm on tom-toms. "Waltz Of The Water Puppets," though, yes, a waltz, incorporates Vietnamese melodic lines, played on flute and violin, as it recognizes one of the country’s theatrical traditions. "Trong Com" celebrates the rice harvest, as Bang plucks the accompaniment, certainly more Oriental than jazz-based, while percussionist Brown sets up the rhythm with hand drumming.
Bang’s acceptance of Vietnamese cultural tradition establishes the overriding theme of his album: reconciliation. He says, "I learned to respect and love the Asians after Vietnam. I came to this general feeling that these people never really did anything to me. It was my own government that sent me way over there to kind of pick a fight. I regretted that. I felt perhaps guilty about it." And so, the two tracks from which the remainder of the CD is suspended are "Reconciliation 1" and Reconciliation 2." The former introduces the concept with a free section of mournful violin, wordless singing and shimmering dan tranh. Then the remaining instruments come in, blending Oriental intervals and the dan tranh with Hicks’ fuller, more Westernized, more jazz-based chords. After fading almost to a whisper, the entire group asserts a final chorus of combined cultural wish for peace. "Reconciliation 2," on the other hand, starts with Hicks’ hard-swinging statement before the Vietnamese melody is overlaid. And essentially, it becomes an opportunity for each musician to improvise at length, joyously, for a final optimistic statement a far cry from the darkness and still-simmering despair of Vietnam - The Aftermath.
After decades of separation and distrust, the sensibilities of jazz and Vietnamese music have synthesized into a sound that’s new for both countries. Nguyen thinks that Vietnamese people would have a hard time accepting jazz vocabulary as an addition to their traditional folk songs. Americans aren’t used to Oriental instrumentation or intervals in their jazz. And that’s what makes Bang’s CD so original: It challenges expectations and introduces newer forms that haven’t been part of the canon, thereby advancing the art form.
Now that Bang has confronted his demons and attained some peace, he hopes to continue the cross-cultural exposure by recording his next album with a Vietnamese national symphony, raising his inspiration to its highest level.
And so, now that Bang and other Vietnam veterans have spent over half a lifetime vanquishing the images, sounds and feelings engendered by war, we are left to wonder at the length and terms of reconciliation that the current war’s soldiers will attain, if ever.... and whether transformed means of expression will result as well. What form will it take?