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Billy Bang Quartet featuring Frank Lowe

Above and Beyond

An Evening in Grand Rapids

(Justin Time; US: 8 May 2007; UK: 21 May 2007)

Magnificent Quintet

The English critic-photographer Valerie Wilmer pinned back several pairs of ears with her 2003 obituary to the saxophonist Frank Lowe, still well worth reading.


Lowe (1943-2003) began as a roaring ‘avant-garde/new thing’ tenor saxophone player in the 1960s, but late in a too short life had made a specialty of being able to play like the grandfathers and fathers of the instrument’s musical career. He got roots, and Ms. Wilmer marveled at his ability to demonstrate different historical performers’ respective styles. He was no clone of Coltrane, and when playing in orthodox driving manner sounded like a Coleman Hawkins disciple, somewhere between Chu Berry and his own contemporary Buck Hill.


Lowe worked for a long time with Billy Bang, and Marty Khan’s notes to the present set refer to the way in which each man grew musically by assimilation of different aspects of the other’s playing. They certainly work magnificently on the opening title here, “Silent Observation”, Lowe with his impassioned Coleman Hawkins galaxy sound, bursting into controlled falsetto cries around the climax of his solo. Where some Bang CDs fall into mannerism, as if he had a compulsion to do his same one thing again, here he’s much more open, hot, at times moving in an adjacent universe to legit fiddling (like the Julliard Quartet).


This CD is from an evening gig on what turned out to be the two men’s last tour together—Lowe with only one working lung (lung cancer finally killed him) and blowing himself to a standstill. Andrew Bemkey has an astonishing night on piano (this is not the hype expended on bright young mediocrities, and that man has depth), and Todd Nicholson (bass) and Tatsuya Nakatani (drums) complete a quartet with everything for the occasion. 


“Silent Observation” is just a complete jazz quintet performance, and while none of the other three long tracks achieves quite its level, this is, or rather (alas!) was, a stunningly good band. The notes make much of the second track, “Nothing But Love”, but while Lowe plays well, he sticks close to the simple rhythmic theme throughout the opening solo, which the rhythm section contribution leavens. The major area of development follows Lowe, Bemkey breaking up the theme and taking off in various very interesting directions. He really stretches himself.
Everybody gets a blow on “Dark Silhouette”, whose twenty-four minutes begin with a not quite jazz, virtuoso delivery on unaccompanied piano. Bemkey was, I’ve said, in great form, and everybody else was fit, well, and able to follow him in this mighty succession of lengthy, well-sustained medium-pace solos.


The spiritedness of the opener returns to give the programme of the CD a triumphant ending on “At Play in the Fields of the Lord”. Actually, and even bearing in mind his recent second Vietnam set, I don’t think I’ve ever heard Billy Bang himself playing better. Inspired.

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