Bill Banfield Band
1. Spring Forward*
2. Losing Absalom
3. She Made It Crystal Clear
4. Free Me*
5. The Thumb (W. Montgomery)
6. Equinox (J.Coltrane)
7. Follow the Melody of Your Soul*
8. Free You*
9. Free Us*
*These songs form the Free Blues Suite, commissioned by Zeitgeist New Music Ensemble with support from the Jerome Foundation, recorded live at Studio Z.
Free Blues Suite is dedicated in loving memory of my brother Duvaughn Douglas Banfield (1948-2008), and my mother who gave – and inspired in me – the gift of music, Anna Lue Banfield (1925-2008)
Bill Banfield Band:
Stokley Williams: drums
Terry Burns: bass (tracks 1,4,5,8,9)
Serge Aquo: bass (tracks 2,3,6)
Keith McCutchen: electric piano (tracks 1,2,3)
Wallace Hill: conga, percussion (tracks 2,4,5)
Bill Banfield: guitar
Zeitgeist: (tracks 1,8,9)
Pat O’Keefe: bass clarinet, clarinet, soprano sax
Heather Barringer: xylophone, marimba, percussion
Patti Cudd: vibraphone, percussion
Anatoly Larkin: piano
Produced by Bill Banfield for BMagic Music (The Jazz Urbane).
Engineered by Norton Llewellyn at Tracks Records.
Mixing engineer, Colin McArdell, Master Mix Studios, Minneapolis, MN.
Mastered by Jonathan Wyner, MWorks Studios, Cambridge, MA.
Photography by Tobechi Tobechukwu.
Special thanks to Cynthia Gehrig at the Jerome Foundation.
Innova is supported by an endowment from the McKnight Foundation.
Philip Blackburn, director, design
Chris Campbell, operations manager
The Free Blues Suite is an important experiment in American music on several levels. Banfield’s understanding of composition as it relates to form and architecture is immediately apparent and serves as the strongest thread to tie the collective works together. What makes Banfield’s work so special is its sense of immediacy. The musicians communicate with a single purpose and intense commitment to every song; a contemporary view of blues expression.
What if we could spring forward out of the reach and ruin of the marketing marking madness of the music industry, the pressure to get on a “play list”?
I’m interested in a movement among musicians, of discussions relating to the creation of musical ideas, focused on songs, melodies, freedom of expression, music made for and connected with people for them to enjoy, “ sing with” and be moved by and lifted: An interest in the spirit of the songs, melodies, an individual’s artistic voice, and the spirit of the communal—not the trend or commercial matters of music. Music needs always to envibe and inspire people—connect to people—and that is a spiritual idea that is embraced by the principal players in the industry: the artists. …To write musically, not produced-driven music, but music we hoped people would like to listen to us play. That’s a way to think about the musical experience; Do the artists feel great when they are creating? What would it be like again for our listeners if musicians could be allowed to just jam? And that be the music we loved to play and record, and people could hear that too?
That’s what this particular recording project was intended to be like. We hung some mics in an artist studio, we had a few friends at some tables, and we played some songs, jams, favorites, and a connected composition or two. Eric Dolphy’s, Out To Lunch, or Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity, Ornette’s Free Jazz, the Mingus workshops or even Zappa’s aesthetic come to mind. Bands again—group communal “art making identities”, musicians making music. Just inviting people into music made by musicians playing with each other and for people: What could that be like..? We ought to Spring Forward again.
It is all well and good to celebrate the blurring of genres, the crossing of musical borders, and other signs of a post-stylistic or pan-stylistic era in which supposed dichotomies dissolve and the only distinctions that matter are those of quality. To realize the goal is another matter, yet within the purview of those both comfortable and persuasive inhabiting such expansive terrain. Bill Banfield has the musical wingspan, and is confident in both concert hall and jam session, at home and ease whether committing his inspiration to manuscript or expressing it in the moment.
Banfield draws upon the rich heritage of his native Detroit’s, as manifested specifically in the legendary musical spawning ground that is the first and hardly least of his alma maters, Cass Technical High School. From there, the inquisitive Banfield pursued music at the New England Conservatory, theology at Boston University and composition at the University of Michigan. He has taught at the Universities of Indiana and St. Thomas, Minnesota (the latter in St. Paul), currently teaches at the Berklee School of Music, led his own BMagic Orchestra and contributed to the ongoing soundtrack of NPR, received commissions for symphonies, operas, chamber and choral works. Banfield is also a guitar player who understands the power of his instrument to create improvisational heat and lyrical glow, and a bandleader who presents his partners with music that can be felt together. Spring Forward is Banfield making the parts cohere, showing us something of all the things he is.
Among those things, Banfield is a player who communicates. Those known best for their writing are often disparaged when they pick up an instrument, accused in jazz parlance of playing “arranger’s piano.” Banfield, in contrast, plays what we might call composer’s guitar, an approach in which ideas with melodic content and forward-springing suggestion trump self-contained technical exercises. He writes in a similar spirit, allowing his themes to resonate and grow, while his arrangements allow every member of the band to shine.
Banfield’s perspective on jazz allows for stretching and grooving, and music by two of his idols, Wes Montgomery and John Coltrane, fits snugly among his own creations while receiving distinct interpretations. Montgomery, the thumb-picking, octave-plucking guitar titan has clearly been one Banfield source, though the present reading of “The Thumb” is more redolent of Montgomery’s relaxed and affirmative spirit than his signature licks. Coltrane’s energy has clearly been a model as well (check out especially “Free Me” and “Free Us”), but Coltrane’s gift for melodic clarity and concision inspires a different direction on “Equinox,” as well as a different take on the blues.
The populist triumphs of Montgomery, George Benson and homeboy Earl Klugh, guitarists who achieved success in collaboration with skilled arrangers, are also celebrated by Banfield, albeit with the twist that Banfield can generate both solos and charts (as if Montgomery and Don Sebesky, or Benson and Claus Ogerman, had been united in a single person). “Losing Absalom” and “She Made It Crystal Clear” are examples of this single-source conception at work, each orchestrated in a manner than makes full use of the small group setting and elaborated through solos that grow organically from the thematic material. This same unity can be detected in Banfield’s unaccompanied “Follow the Melody of Your Soul,” a spontaneous statement with logic and pacing that reveals a player determined to merge feeling and thought.
Larger compositional vistas are viewed in the “Free Blues Suite,” an opus in five sections that alternatively focus on rhythmic variety (“Spring Forward”), straight-ahead swing (“Free Me”), lyricism (“Free You”) and free interchange (“Free Us”), with “Follow the Melody…” serving as a cadenza/fulcrum. As energy and emotion changes from section to section, the colors and themes provide narrative coherence, while the forms engender the necessary surprise.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the suite is the success with which three of its sections blend two separate ensembles, Banfield’s own band and the quartet Zeitgeist. Writing music that falls naturally into the orbit of one band is impressive enough; to write for two simultaneously without audible seams in something else. Banfield clearly took the challenge as an opportunity to paint from a new pallet in a manner that makes both the written conjunctions more vivid and the final collage exhilarating in a manner that recalls the music of another Banfield idol, Eric Dolphy.
It is indicative of Banfield that, instead of presenting the suite in strict sequence, he has opened it up by folding in the other tracks. The program that results becomes a commentary of sorts that amplifies the moods of the extended work - the flow of “Absolom” and “Crystal” a response to “Spring Forward,” the Montgomery and Coltrane pieces reinforcing in different ways the swing underpinning “Free Me.” Much like a Cubist portrait, the sequence provides multiple perspectives and reveals highlights and shadows, without disrupting the integrity of the overall form.
Bill Banfield’s ideas are too copious to allow any single program to serve as a “complete” self-portrait. Still, Spring Forward is a great starting point for those unfamiliar with his work, perhaps an eye-opener for those who identify him with the concert hall and the conductor’s podium, and a joy to all who appreciate music that moves body, mind and spirit, that rides the myriad tributaries of music before into the surging current of music to come.