If you have been writing about American music over the last 30 years with any curiosity, you will have come across Allen Lowe. Lowe is a musician, composer, scholar, sound engineer, and programmer. But mostly, he has challenged our inherited ideas about American music, both in his music and his writing. The word “jazz” has been challenged plenty (and properly) in recent years, but Lowe has dared to challenge much of our idea about the history of American music and how its styles arose, connect, and continue to evolve.
As a saxophonist, Lowe started as a bebop player and later absorbed the notions of “free” or “new music” playing that came to New York in the form of players such as David Murray and Julius Hemphill. In his mature playing, you can hear a blend that was certainly present in Ornette Coleman‘s music: a connection to both Charlie Parker through his harmonic sophistication and his deep roots in the blues. Lowe has a saxophone sound (on both alto and tenor) that cries quite a bit, connecting him to music that predates the bebop of the 1940s and onward, even as you hear him play syncopated rhythmic flurries that are “modern”.
As a composer and historian, Lowe is interested in reorienting us as listeners. The accepted history of American music through the 20th century involves a lot of orthodoxy about the contributions of various people, locales, and styles and an accepted linear narrative. Lowe has listened to, written about, and painstakingly documented a vast swath of American music — “blues”, “country”, “minstrelsy”, and “jazz”. His conclusions don’t always make people comfortable — and, honestly, I haven’t done nearly the work that would position me to defend or disagree with him. But it is bracing work.
I can absolutely endorse and thrill to his music, which often reflects his historical thinking and contempt for unexamined orthodoxy. These two albums are significant attempts to reflect on how Lowe hears the best American music and to correct some of how 21st-century musicians approach the past as they point forward.
America: The Rough Cut mostly features a quartet of Lowe’s tenor sax, Ray Suhy on guitar (and banjo), Alex Tremblay’s bass, and Kresten Osgood on drums. On a couple of tracks, Lowe also plays guitar. The songs move about the landscape of early 20th-century American music, wrestling with it by playing it with an awareness of what it would become (bebop, free jazz, rock). “Cold Was the Night Dark Was the Ground” (an overdubbed duet of Lowe on guitar and saxophone with some growly vocal stuff for effect, too) is something like advanced primitivism. The guitar is recorded at some distance, echoing in a room, playing relatively few chords, and instead sounding like a deeply felt improvisation around some blues motifs. His horn, closer to the mic, is nearly as tonally gruff but more obviously harmony-drunk: sometimes tracing chords in a post-bop way and at other times cutting loose from harmonic schemes to cry.
You can hear that modus on every track here, some using a form that is country music (“Cheatin’ My Heart”) or hill music dirge (the hilariously titled, “Eh, Death”) or ballad (“Hymn for Her”) or rock-a-billy stomp (“Full Moon Moan”). The shifts from one style to another might give some listeners whiplash, as the banjo-driven “Old Country Rag” gives way to the hyper-distorted blues “Metallic Taste”. But this, of course, is Lowe’s modus operandi at its core — when any of these styles is played with conviction and a commitment and honesty about the idiom, they are siblings.
It is interesting to listen to the live last track, recorded with a larger ensemble featuring brass and an alto saxophone solo from the daring modernist Darius Jones. The band leap into a groove that connects to early New Orleans jazz and Sun Ra, with a brief Lowe solo, followed by more intriguing growls from brass. Jones rises over all of it with his gravity-rich tone, boosted higher by some primitive arrangement. The blues melody arrives at the end, simple and clear. But as with most of these exercises, the concept is larger than the “head”. Here, Lowe posits is the American music theme writ large: not just “the blues” but music that finds a ripping balance between raw feeling and the intelligence to amplify that feeling with new ideas.
In the Dark, though also credited to the “Constant Sorrow Orchestra”, features a larger band that more often sounds like a jazz group of the post-bebop era. A batch of horns (Lowe, again on tenor sax, with Aaron Johnson on alto sax/clarinet, Ken Peplowski on clarinet, Lisa Parrott’s baritone sax, Brian Simontacchi on trombone, and Kellin Hannas on trumpet) play in ensembles that sometimes sound Ellingtonian (“Innuendo in Blue” – haha), sometimes like Mingus (“What Are We Doing?”), but also echo certain Horace Silver bands (“Nita’s Mom”) or even David Murray‘s Octet (“Junkie Rumble”). As soloists, all the horns are impressive, playing in the “outside-in” vocabulary of the last 30 years — aware of the forms and harmonic structures set up by the compositions but more than happy to flee the confines when that is the best way to increase tension or expressiveness in the music.
The other distinction between these dates is the use of keyboard player Lewis Porter — like Lowe, a noted writer (of a lauded John Coltrane biography) and scholar. Porter is deployed much like Suhy on the other recording: he plays acoustic piano, odd-sounding electric organs (not just a classic Hammond B3), and electro-acoustic pianos given some grungy effects. In “In the Dark: For Helen”, Porter plays a Wurlitzer electric piano that was recorded or mixed to sound slightly muffled. He plays beautiful runs around the melody and takes the first solo, elegant but occasionally flashing piquant chords that throw a different shade on the music. Some of the keyboard sounds play to Lowe’s apparent interest in scratching up the surface of his music.
“In the Dark: Desperate Circles” and “What Are We Doing” find Porter using a Vox or Farfisa organ sound that is rarely, if ever, used in jazz. The effect is alienating — a choice that is both unusual and off-putting but maybe also revelatory. The same device on “Jelly Roll’s Broadway Blues”, a two-step tune out of another era, makes the sound work. Porter’s solo is a hurdy-gurdy wonder with all kinds of thrilling note combinations. As accompaniment for clarinet and saxophone, the organ becomes almost futuristic, making the track sound like nothing you have ever heard.
The effect of both of these recordings is similar. They are neither revolutionary nor neo-classical. Rather, Lowe has found a way to use historical referents, and some accepted modern techniques in combination to create music that sounds unusually fresh. The older styles are not canonized on these recordings, and the modern abstractions are pursued to ground the music in feeling rather than to make it harder to understand.
At times, America: The Rough Cut and In the Dark sounds slightly like shtick. The themes and arrangements that reference or mimic Lowe’s heroes are cool, and when he flips them on their heads with banjo, Farfisa, metal guitar, or a jokey title, you can see his intelligence at work. But I will confess that I listened to these (very long — together, they consist of four hours of music) albums with the sense that I was reading a book about jazz rather than absorbing someone’s truly felt art. The music is felt deeply, but there were many moments when I doubted I would re-listen to these fascinating experiments.
Some of the music, however, was undeniable. The first track on Rough Cut, “Damnation”, is lodged firmly in my rotation. Ruhy — playing neither like Metallica nor like Charlie Christian — is on the wavelength of Sonny Sharrock. Lowe solos as if he loves Ben Webster and Ornette Coleman equally. The rhythm section seems to want to be Count Basie and Sun Studios simultaneously. But it all sounds organic and real. At its best, this music is both.