Thursday, February 24, 2011

Allen Lowe’s “Blues and the Empirical Truth”

If living well is the best revenge, then making a great jazz album can’t be far behind. Just ask saxophonist-guitarist-composer Allen Lowe, whose last recording, 1997’s double CD Jews In Hell: Radical Jewish Acculturation, was a response to his inability to get a jazz gig in Portland, Maine, where he currently resides. According to Lowe’s lengthy, informative, and hilarious liner notes to his new triple CD Blues and the Empirical Truth, his latest work was inspired, at least in part, by a young drummer who insulted him and challenged him to a fight after being lambasted via email for missing a rehearsal. (For what it’s worth, the specific tune occasioned by this encounter, “Old Man Blues,” is the best modern day evocation of Jelly Roll Morton since Mingus paid tribute via “My Jelly Roll Soul” and Air revived “King Porter Stomp.”)

I’ll call Lowe, for want of a better term, a maximalist – not just because he produces such sprawling, epic musical statements on his own, but because of the protean work he’s done as an author, historian, archivist, and sound restoration engineer whose work covers the whole length and breadth of recorded American music (four books, two of them unpublished, one accompanied by a nine CD set, another by a 36 CD set, and a more recently compiled 36 CD set with 80,000 words of notes) – all, he emphasizes, without any institutional aid or funding. He’s a great thinker about music whose insights often swim against the tide of conventional wisdom. His own music restores my hope in the continuing vitality of jazz in the 21st century – not just in Europe or historic centers like Chicago and New York, but even in American backwaters (where, Lowe the historian would likely point out, the unprecedented availability of recorded sound via the internet makes easily accessible the latest developments from the music’s far-flung outposts).

Lowe’s performed sporadically over the years, in between spells working as a teacher, music journalist, playwright, and arts administrator, among other day gigs. Originally a self-admitted “bebop nazi,” he expanded his vision in the ‘80s enough to work alongside such forward-looking lights of the new music as Julius Hemphill, Don Byron, David Murray, and Roswell Rudd. He was introduced to Rudd, the Yale-educated Dixieland trombonist who made his name in the ‘60s playing free jazz with Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, Steve Lacy, and John Tchicai, via writer Francis Davis, who’d found Rudd working in a Catskill resort band. (Lowe and Rudd are the subjects of consecutive chapters in Davis’ worthwhile anthology Bebop and Nothingness, through which your humble chronicler o’ events first became aware of Lowe.)

Rudd’s probably the best known of Lowe’s collaborators on Blues and the Empirical Truth. Another is Matthew Shipp, the brilliant pianist who made his name in the ‘90s playing in what seems in retrospect to have been the last great free jazz band, with saxophonist David S. Ware and bassist William Parker. Shipp previously appeared on Jews In Hell, as did avant-guitarist/Tom Waits sideman Marc Ribot, who’s also present here. One difference is that for BATET, Lowe actually traveled to Brooklyn to record with Rudd, Shipp, and Ribot (unlike the earlier release, where he dueted with Shipp on one tune and the pianist and guitarist performed solo interpretations of Lowe’s tunes).

One of BATET’s most sublime pleasures is listening to Lowe, Rudd, and Shipp intertwining their sounds, often with the leader on guitar -- on which he’s wont to push the tonal envelope in the manner of Joe Morris, one of Captain Beefheart’s guitarists, or that guy down the hall from you in college who sort of knew how to play and sort of didn’t -- and Shipp on Farfisa organ, that signifier of ‘60s garage-rock cheese, which he uses to evoke the sound of the church on “Manhattan Moan” and “Ras Speaks 1” (both vehicles for Rudd’s muted growls and speech-inflected lines), or Sun Ra on the Albert Ayler-inspired “The Lost.” The shade of Thelonious Monk is present in the melody of “Entrance No Exit” (reminiscent of “Ask Me Now”) and in Shipp’s Monkian spareness on “Blue Interlude 1” (where Lowe flutters, Bird-like), while “Blue Interlude 2” has some marvelously intimate muted playing from Rudd, where you can hear the saliva in the mouthpiece.

As for Ribot, he conjures freewheeling solos from thin air and sculpts the notes until they form things of rough beauty. On “Blue Like Me,” he explodes out of the gate in a blaze of brawny atonality, like early Blood Ulmer splicing genes with a battalion of lower Manhattan “No Wave” guys. On the first version of “No 5 No Flats No Sharps Blues” – several of Lowe’s tunes appear in multiple versions which are different enough to justify their inclusion -- he gets further down in the alley than you’ve ever imagined him, then goes all the way off, with a searing intensity that will make you sit up in sheer astonishment. The second version is more slinky, sexy, and groove-oriented.

None of the above is intended as a slight to Lowe’s Maine-based musicians. The rhythm section of Jessie Hautala and Jake Millet on electric bass and drums respectively is particularly meritorious, inasmuch as their instrumentation is bound to piss off the acoustic jazz purists, while listeners with an ear for black street music will delight in the way they lock it in the pocket on “Huh/Sublime and Funky Love Pt. 1.”

Instead of playing one of those kits like Denardo Coleman uses, Millet uses floppy discs and pushes buttons, rather than striking pads, to get his sounds; that said, his beats are live-sounding and responsive, once you get used to their electronic timbre. On “I Hate Blues,” an oblique homage to obscuro NYC punk band the Mad (anybody else remember Screaming Mad George?), he works his virtual kick drum as furiously as Stefan Gonzalez going all Gene Krupa-on-steroids on Yells At Eels’ “Document for Toshinori Kondo.” It’s an impressive feat, enough to make all but the most doctrinaire neo-cons reconsider what “really playing” means. His “cymbal” work is also noteworthy.

To these feedback-scorched, guitar-centric ears, the big news here is Berklee-schooled axe-slinger Ray Suhy. While I’m not generally a fan of jazz guitarists’ dry, muted sounds and absence of vocalized effects, this Suhy guy is definitely Something Entahrly Other, from his reverbed-out surf/Morricone tone on “Twilight at Terezin” to the skronky storm he churns up on “Pauli Murray, at the Back of the Bus, Suddenly Realizes She Has the Blues” (titled after a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt and precursor of Rosa Parks). There’s a lot of Sonny Sharrock in Suhy’s voice: his slide on “The Children of Ella Mae Wiggins” sounds like an unholy amalgam of Sonny and Billy Gibbons, while the net effect of “Blues In Shreds” is something like Last Exit if only Sharrock was going completely apeshit. All in all, Suhy’s contributions constitute a mighty impressive debut.

As a saxophonist, the leader’s playing is exploratory, but with an awareness of tradition, as though he breathed in the entire history of blues and jazz (which I suppose, in a way, he has) and is now blowing it out through the bell of his horn. Lowe burns with incandescent fire on uptempo numbers, cries the blues a la Ornette on “(Bull Connor Sees) Darkies on the Delta,” flexes his muscles to show off his range and fluidity on “No More Blues (the Sins of the Mother),” and even comes across like one of those freedom-drunk, fire-breathing ‘60s guys on “Pete Brown’s Blues,” “In a Harlem Ashram,” and “One Trane Running.” (No slouch, either, is Texas-born altoist Spike Sikes, who plays Pharaoh Sanders to Lowe’s Trane on “Elvis Died With His Sins Intact.” I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention pianist-academic-Coltrane biographer Lewis Porter, who tickles the ivories in an exemplary manner on three tracks.)

Lowe’s always a composer first, and plays through “actual chord changes” like those on the Ellingtonian “In Da Sunshine of Your Love” or “My Confession: Ode to Doris Day (The Last Embrace)” with lyrical elegance and grace. His tunes almost always come with a back story, with titular or musical allusions to jazz and Civil Rights pioneers, Richard Hell, Richard Strauss, the Carter Family, minstrel shows, the Regular Old Baptists – he avers that he listens to nothing but gospel music – Salvation Army bands, an obscure post-Beat poet, and the Velvet Underground, to say nothing of the album’s Oliver Nelson-inspired title.

BATET only includes a couple of vocal features. On the slow shuffle “Carnovsky’s Blues/The Whores’ Dance,” the terrifying slavery-days narrative “Cold Bed Blues,” and the ominously relentless “Blood on the Mirror,” engineer Todd Hutchisen intones Lowe’s lyrics like Colonel Bruce Hampton singing from the bottom of the ocean, which is actually an improvement on the author’s sub-Lou Reed croak on Jews In Hell. No one does all things equally well.

There’s much to be amazed by in this cornucopia of sounds. I know I’ll still be digesting this by summer, which makes BATET an early candidate for my record of the year. And again, hearing this outpouring gives me hope. If creativity this robust can survive and thrive in the Maine woods, who knows what other pockets of thrilling, individuated compositional and improvisational excellence are lurking out there in the backwater burgs of America? (Or, if a masterpiece drops in the woods, does anybody hear? Visit for the answers to this and many other questions.)

ADDENDUM: Official release will be on July 26th via Music & Arts Programs of America. You can preorder now via Amazon.


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