THE TEAMING OF bowed and plucked stringed instruments in jazz goes back to the early history of the idiom, when violin-guitar-bass combos worked the bordellos of Storyville, New Orleans' red-light district. In the 1920s violinist Joe Venuti and guitarist Eddie Lang paired up for a series of classic recordings, and in the mid-'30s the most famous combo of all came together, the Paris-based Quintet of the Hot Club of France, which featured guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli. Grappelli currently travels the international concert circuit with a close replica of the QHCF.
Nor can one omit mention of violinists Stuff Smith, Eddie South and Ray Nance, who had small groups with guitar and/or bass, or bassist Slam Stewart, who, in the company of guitarist Tiny Grimes and pianist Art Tatum, made frequent use of his bow. For the next stage in the development of the format, however, one must leap across the years.
"It hasn't been in America for decades," says guitarist James Emery of the seven-year-old New York String Trio, "but we didn't put this group together to say, 'Hey, here's something that hasn't been done in a long time -- let's do it.' It just happened." The trio, with Billy Bang on violin and John Lindberg on upright bass, will be at d.c. space Saturday for a District Curators-sponsored performance, the opening concert of the New Jazz at Space fall series.
The origins of the three musicians are far-flung and their backgrounds disparate, but a common interest in the contemporary sounds of jazz brought them together on New York's Lower East Side in 1977. Emery, raised in Cleveland, and Lindberg, from Michigan, met in New York in the mid-'70s and "used to play duets eight, nine hours a day for weeks," recalls Emery. One day Bang, who was born in Mobile, Ala., and grew up in Spanish Harlem, "came by, and the sound struck us as something we'd like to continue."
The trio has made seven European tours and cut four albums on the Italian Black Saint label. Bang, Lindberg and Emery have also worked independently as leaders of their own groups or as participants in the groups of others. "It's pretty much an economic necessity for musicians to be involved in multiple projects," says Emery, "but the String Trio has gotten to the point where it's pretty easy to book because it is a unique group."
Emery started at age 5 on the electric organ in his home (his mother played light classics and hymns on it). When the instrument was removed, he was dissuaded from taking up oboe or alto saxophone and directed, by his parents, to study classical guitar.
Lindberg, who was his high school concert band's percussionist, heard a bass solo by the late Wilbur Ware on a Sonny Rollins record, marched into the band room and declared, "Okay, give me a bass -- I'm a bass player now."
Bang's response, in the sixth grade, when he was forced to learn the violin instead of being allowed to join the drum corps, was, "Why me?" It embarrassed him to be seen carrying the violin case in his home territory, Harlem, and his pursuit of the instrument, was, for long periods, more in the nature of a flight from it. For a while, at a Stockbridge, Mass., private school where Arlo Guthrie was a schoolmate, he actually did realize his dream of playing drums. Finally, in the late '60s, Bang began to listen intently to the then avant-garde sounds of the New York loft scene and was inspired to purchase a $30 violin from a pawn shop. He soon moved to the Lower East Side, began sitting in with saxophonist Sam Rivers and others, and eventually heard about the duo of Emery and Lindberg.
"I think a collective group can offer a listener something that very few groups of the more common setup -- leader and three or four sidemen -- can," says Emery. "You're getting like a multifaceted presentation in which each member has an equal say-so and an equal input as to the direction. We also have the regular solos with accompaniment. It's really a different kind of experience."