Your friends and other experts will tell you the songs and sounds that are new and hot. What the music makers are happier telling you is: what’s old, what abides, what is true, what connects and how they got it. Bill Banfield is one of those African-American composers / performers / teachers who when he speaks of The Music, suggests one ageless tradition being made new every day by geniuses and inspired journeymen in hip-hop and concert music. His is a realm where Son House’s Delta Blues, Duke Ellington’s orchestral majesty, Bessie Smith’s “Downhearted Blues” are never out of style, not often out of mind.
You can tell a lot about Bill Banfield’s Imagine Orchestra just by listening. It’s big-band enough to evoke the 1930s and ‘40s, but this is 2018, so the pianist in Bill Banfield’s Imagine orchestra (last time I heard it) was a young Cuban woman, the solo star (also a woman) was a jazz violinist. Berklee College of Music students sit next to old pro’s in this band. You hear hip-hop floating through it, and a lot of jazz knowledge popping out of it. This is composed music that makes room for improvisation and virtuosity. The Imagine Orchestra draws on vernacular sounds of church and street. You will hear touches of the avant-garde and of Africa. Long after jazz joints disappeared, you can feel again a community of musicians reaching out and enveloping its audience.
Banfield is a child of Detroit in the Motown era. His best friends in Cass Tech High School seemed to know they would all be professional musicians. A guitarist to begin, he is a composer of symphonic music that’s been played all over the US. He’s an historian of the bandleader Sun Ra and his Arkestra. He’s got a novel forthcoming about a musical dreamer growing up, as he did, in 1970s Detroit. The book is called Cedric’s Truth: a novel by a musician. And not least, Bill Banfield holds the chair of Africana Studies at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.