Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings

Frank Lowe
Out Loud
Triple Point TPR 209

When looking back on an artist’s oeuvre, and notably with that artist absent from the living plane, the first question that arises is usually one of impact – what effect did this person have on the environment around their work? That’s fairly easy to gauge with major, lauded figures, a little less so with an artist who hasn’t broken through to popular consciousness. But when we delve into the work of someone whose various struggles may have made their output a little less easy to accept wholly – the flawed or inconsistent brilliance, those who may be dark horses in the polls – the idea of “impact” might be significantly more subjective and the support for their work a bit more rabid.

Take, for instance, the tenor saxophonist Frank Lowe (1943-2003), whose early 1970s floruit is the subject of a new, lavish double-LP set (with a notably lavish price) on Triple Point Records, titled Out Loud. Lowe cut seventeen albums as a leader, along with numerous sideman dates, in his relatively short time on earth. For decades he struggled with personal problems (partly stemming from service in Vietnam), and while such factors should never be the focal point for a study of his output, they nevertheless affected the circumstances of performing and making records. That said, he was ambitious, composing for orchestra (the excellent Lowe & Behold LP on Musicworks, from 1981) and diving into partnerships with musicians as diverse as cornetist Don Cherry and guitarist Eugene Chadbourne. A significant figure in what is commonly referred to as “Loft Jazz,” Lowe fronted a variety of bands in the States and Europe through the ‘70s, and in the fallow ‘80s and ‘90s led a host of sessions for scrappy independents like Cadence, Soul Note and ITM.

Lowe’s story is expertly told in Ed Hazell’s accompanying booklet, detailing Lowe’s early life in Memphis, relocation to Lawrence, Kansas (where he briefly attended college), Bay Area woodshedding, a brief foray into Sun Ra’s world, and his eventual permanent move to New York in 1971. Following impressive sideman appearances with figures like pianist Alice Coltrane, alto saxophonist Noah Howard, drummer Sunny Murray and the Aboriginal Music Society, Lowe quickly gained a reputation. By 1972 he was co-leading a duo with drummer Rashied Ali (Exchange, 1972), their blistering, athletic torrents captured for Ali’s Survival Records imprint, with an appropriately gritty accompanying photo shoot by journalist/musicologist Valerie Wilmer. Exchange was followed in 1973 by Black Beings (ESP-Disk’) on which Lowe was joined by saxophonist Joseph Jarman, violinist Raymond Lee Cheng (credited as “The Wizard”), bassist William Parker and drummer Rashied Sinan for two lengthy ensemble pieces and a curious, somewhat brief unaccompanied tenor improvisation. By this time, ESP was barely hanging on and Black Beings was a last, heavy gasp for a catalog that had become increasingly fragmented and perhaps somewhat irrelevant.

By the early ‘70s, musicians from Chicago’s AACM and St. Louis’ Black Artists’ Group had relocated to New York, many of them doing so after work in Europe dried up. Jarman, who was one of the original four members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, was a harrier of a saxophonist and an unpredictable, theatrical force – thus, his appearance on Black Beings fits in as it straddles parallel logics of post-Coltrane energy music and diffused spaciousness. In the ensuing years, Lowe would often collaborate with musicians from these camps, including trumpeters Leo Smith and Lester Bowie, drummers Phillip Wilson and Charles “Bobo” Shaw, and trombonist Joseph Bowie. Lowe apparently sat in with the AEC at the Five Spot in September of 1975, and it was not particularly unusual for him – and his loft scene counterparts – to employ “little instruments,” lengthier suite-like forms and a degree of Midwestern openness in their music, blending or colliding with urbane catalysis.

The music that makes up Out Loud – two LPs and video footage – was in part slated to become Lowe’s second LP as a leader. The saxophonist is joined here by William Parker, Joseph Bowie, drummer Steve Reid, and on one live cut, trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah. The studio material was to be issued on Alan Bates’ Freedom imprint (and its Michael Cuscuna-directed American counterpart under the Arista banner), though its place was taken by Fresh, with a somewhat different lineup and a very different feel. Recorded at Ali’s Survival Studio in 1974, these tracks would have made up a record tentatively titled Logical Extensions – four cuts from the studio, interspersed with a pair of tunes accompanied by the Memphis Four (one of which made it onto Fresh). While mostly untitled, these cuts were part of a suite tentatively titled “Acts of Freedom.” Influenced by AACM/BAG musicians, Lowe expands his arsenal to include, in addition to tenor and soprano saxophones, flute, harmonica, congas, balafon, and various “little” instruments and percussion devices, along with a liberal application of his voice. The second LP consists of the same band, augmented by Abdullah, recorded at Studio Rivbea in early 1974.

Drawing from the sonic imprint of players like Chu Berry, Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, the first thing that one notices about Lowe’s playing is his sound, hard-bitten and massive, and fitting for the harrowing grime of lower Manhattan and Brooklyn during the time. His improvisations at this point are generally staccato, coming in short, split-toned bursts made on what was probably a very hard reed. But even in Lowe’s burly, flywheel shouts, there’s fragility in his improvisations – taut and muscular on the surface, his phrases feel like they could crack open at any second, moving from a loping slink to barbed and scruffily abstract recapitulations. In a proper setting, with compatriots who were similarly explosive and offbeat in their phraseology, this discursiveness works well. With players for whom a more top-down improvisational structure is ideal, Lowe might stick out like a sore thumb and seem disorganized. If there’s one thing to be said about the quartet on Out Loud, they are truly his brethren and provide supportive counterpoint and aggressive goading – in fact, it’s arguable that this was Lowe’s best band.

St. Louis-raised trombonist Joseph Bowie, the younger brother of AEC trumpeter Lester, had relocated to New York in 1973, and would be one of Lowe’s front line partners on Fresh and The Flam (Black Saint, 1975). While perhaps a somewhat monochromatic instrumentalist, his bunched, crackling garrulousness and arcing impulsions make a heady foil. Drummer Steve Reid, a doyen of the New York jazz underground who switched to free music from a brief career backing soul groups and founded the Mustevic Sound imprint, also appeared on Fresh (albeit for just one track). A left-handed drummer like Charles Moffett and Smiley Winters, his shimmering, voluminous pulse and infectious, metronomic groove lock in with Parker’s robust pizzicato to create an unflagging rhythm section that can tighten up a backbeat or create a free-time canvas with equal facility. On the live piece “Untitled 3,” the rhythm section turns a driving lope into so much taffy, multiplying and subdividing vamps underneath Lowe’s flinty, quixotic lines and burnished declarations, in playful empathy that girds the saxophonist’s question-and-answer session. Ahmed Abdullah is cool and lean, his language of condensed mid- and upper-range darts in reserved contrast to the multiplicity of overt rhythmic changes laid down by bass and drums. The piece shifts to subtle, keening purrs from Lowe’s tenor, gorgeous and velvety strands accentuated by bells and shakers, Parker counting out a creeping knot in support, before closing with staggered ensemble charges.

The short descending pattern that roots “Untitled 3” opens the Logical Extensions LP; curiously the (presumably earlier) studio recording is far more unhinged than the live set, rendered at a breakneck tempo with Lowe’s phrases moving faster than his fingers. He spins his phrases in an almost manic state, off mike and moving about the studio, yet with a forceful, continuous presence. Bowie’s blats, ululations and peals follow, more discursive than aggressive; without the dry lock of Parker’s callused pizzicato and Reid’s clacking pulse, the proceedings might wander too far off course, but as it is the music is both ragged and right. Lowe’s tenor is made of pure energy, hoarse with a fiery brilliance, as though one were staring at a blast furnace. “Vivid Description” follows with a boppish, clambering theme, before erupting into distorted crescendos. Ali has set recording levels in the red (as usual) and Parker’s crisp, reedy arco cuts through the morass. Lowe occasionally takes the horn out of his mouth to vocally extemporize with grunts, mumbles and shouts, or overblows on flute to create an effect that is neither instrumental nor vocal, rather almost pre-cognitive. The tapes keep rolling as Lowe huffs, snorts, curses and draws from deep psychic wells for impulsive response to the ensemble’s halting movements.

“Listen” opens the second side with micro-rhythms on balafon augmented by Lowe’s vocal palette and occasional flute and soprano colorings in a brief, vibrant and unsettling passage. This segues into the conga, bass and trap yo-yoing of “Untitled 3,” a multiplicity of tempi pushing against one another as Lowe chants into the microphone, Bowie chortling madly in the background. Parker’s bass lines are the glue, though Reid and Lowe continually chase different paths with their respective batteries. Lowe’s soprano is the horn of choice, biting yet with less structural confidence than the tenor, and his spindly grotesques are downright strange in light of the ensemble’s interleaved rhythmic counterpoint. Incidentally, the volume title comes from Lowe’s repeated shouts of “Out Loud!” as this piece reaches its close. Throughout, these sessions are far from either the sprawling density of Black Beings or the free-bop cadences and sparsely arranged coils of his later work, instead filling space with shambolic urgency and a sonic palette broadened by expressive need rather than concept (a close cousin might be the BAG-related Solidarity Unit, Inc. LP Red, Black & Green).

The live portion of the set was probably recorded shortly after the May Day 1974 Survival session, and curiously was recorded on video – in addition to the second LP’s worth of material, a corresponding protected link is included that allows one to stream the performance. Shaky, black and white footage becomes gradually clearer and we’re able to witness Lowe, Bowie, Parker and Reid in their early prime. The sound is crisp (synced from the tapes) and it’s fascinating to get a visual reference on what Reid looked like when he released those waves of cymbal architecture, or the fleet and dynamic interplay between Lowe and Bowie, exuding depth and rigor even as the music unfurls with an energy all its own. Lowe’s use of a kazoo-like instrument, harmonica, bells and shakers is in full view, as he stoops to the mike with his arsenal while Bowie’s garrulous flicks provide constant, narrow action. It’s pretty rare to see footage from Rivbea in the mid-70s so a performance this strong and lengthy is a treat indeed.

In March 1975, Lowe would convene Joseph and Lester Bowie, Steve Reid, Charles “Bobo” Shaw, cellist Abdul Wadud and Selene Fung (on guzheng) for a program of four tunes, including Monk’s “Misterioso” and “Epistrophy,” that would be released as Fresh. It’s certainly a tighter ensemble even if the Monk renditions are a little batty and not totally cooked, and the saxophonist’s own compositions (especially the tough “Play Some Blues,” with a head that would’ve been welcomed on Logical Extensions) are compelling. Yet one wonders what the saxophonist’s 1970s trajectory would have looked like if Logical Extensions hit the bins as an Arista-Freedom release. The studio set would have been among the heaviest in the label’s small catalog of new releases (most of their LPs were licensed reissues). Lowe would continue to lead impressive ensembles throughout the decade, with such illustrious collaborators as trumpeters Olu Dara, Leo Smith and Butch Morris, bassists Richard Williams and Alex Blake, and drummers Phillip Wilson and George Brown. Though he wasn’t always recognized by the modern jazz cognoscenti either in the States or in Europe (where many of his peers “starved a little less,” to quote more than a few musicians), Lowe cut an unflagging figure in the music’s underground. The works presented on Out Loud are a statement of sheer purpose and Triple Point have done right by Lowe – it’s only a pity that he isn’t around to share in the spoils.
–Clifford Allen

Aum Fidelity

> More Moment's Notice

> back to contents