Tag Archives: Allen Lowe

THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE HOME: MARK SHANE REMEMBERS AL HAIG

Since jazz musicians know how to improvise on their instruments and their voices, it’s no surprise that many of them are great homespun comic talents as well — the world is their stage for instant improvisation.

In case you don’t know the wonderful pianist Mark Shane, here is a recent on-the-spot example of his swinging melodic mastery:

Yesterday, Mark told me this story about the revered Al Haig:

Al Haig was playing with Chuck Wayne at Gregory’s and I used to sit in.

One night, Al sneaked up in back of me and I heard him say sotto voce right in my ear, “Would you sit in a while longer while I park my car?”

“Sure,” sez I.

“Do you know where I want to park it?”

“No, Al, where?”

“At home.  Goodnight!!”

I never saw Al Haig again. He was sublime on those Bird recordings!! The great Al Haig … indeed, indeed!!

May your happiness increase!

ESCAPING THE BOX

William Carlos Williams: “Forcing twentieth-century America into a sonnet—gosh, how I hate sonnets—is like putting a crab into a square box. You’ve got to cut his legs off to make him fit. When you get through, you don’t have a crab any more.”

Robert Frost: “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.”

Younger, I would have sided with Frost: too much freedom leads to chaos. But I celebrate Williams’ position (even though his metaphor makes me wince) more as I age, feel, and listen.  Tidiness is a wonderful thing in the kitchen cabinets, but it might lead to the slow death of creative improvising.

In that spirit, I present the latest works of saxophonist / composer / historian / scholar / seeker Allen Lowe, a four-CD set of original compositions with one exception, a spoken-word piece by the novelist Rick Moody.

field recordings cover bc

JAZZ LIVES readers will be familiar with many of the names on that cover; others will provide engaging and sometimes quizzical surprises in listening and emotion.

Lowe’s works don’t seek to present snapshots of particular eras; they don’t offer “styles or schools.” Rather, his imaginations are intense, deep, yet unfettered. FIELD RECORDINGS, Lowe says in his liner notes, grew out of an argument he had with Wnton Marsalis — during Lowe’s attempt to interview Marsalis.  Disagreeing about “minstrelsy,” Marsalis characterized Lowe — in Lowe’s words — as “merely another in a long line of deluded white academics.”

Lowe spent the next six years immersing himself in “early entertainments of every racial persuasion,” which led him to compositions — song forms — that reflected what he had heard and experienced.  He also plays and improvises on many of these performances heard in this CD set.  More details here.

Lowe writes, “There is a tradition in certain kinds of writing in which the writer takes past works and puts them to his own use for very specific philosophical and artistic reasons. Brecht called this copien, as in the use of older texts as a means to something new and different, as a method from which to challenge prior ideas and forms. This project was done in exactly this spirit, as a way of altering certain received ideas of popular and jazz song. It is also a challenge to certain formal and intellectual assumptions.”

I haven’t heard more than one quarter of the set, but found the music so inspiring that I wanted to spread the word about it.   The performances weren’t always easy to listen to — Lowe, as composer and player, doesn’t shy away from improvisation’s rough edges, but he doesn’t run into harshness for its own sake.

What I appreciate most about the music — I was listening both with and without the benefit of Lowe’s commentaries — was its depth of feeling and innate ability to surprise.  The surprises weren’t ones I could predict (I know that sounds like an illogical paradox, but listening to many of the great musicians, I feel I know “where (s)he might be going” in the next chorus).

Rather, I felt the ground shifting under me in the best sense of the metaphor. Over and over, I felt beautifully startled, gently lifted out of my expectations and planted somewhere else, experiencing the sounds from a different perspective.  Each voyage was a fascinating series of what Emerson calls “zig-zag tacks.”  I heard echoes of New Orleans polyphony and street parade, dark unrequited blues, ensemble questing that echoed Mingus and freer improvsations, with searching, winding melodic lines, unpredictable harmonies that felt good as soon as they found my ears.

Language has a hard time describing music in the best of circumstances, and words are particularly inadequate here. One must be a creative listener to feel Lowe’s many musics, but they are well worth the investigation.  He is honest, inquiring, and sly — as is his work on these four CDs.  But beware!  This set is not ear-cushioning, to be listened to in conjunction with household chores, nor is it meant to be heard as one hears some discs: seventy-five minutes of supple protection from the world.  I predict that the listener wise and brave enough to purchase the FIELD RECORDINGS will approach the music as one does a new book of poems: a poem or two at a time, rather than as an artistic devouring of it all.

As a measure of the breadth and often witty depths of Lowe’s imagination, I would list some of the names he calls in his notes and compositions: Bunk Johnson, Tony Jackson, Roswell Rudd, Ernest Hogan, Mantan Moreland, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Lennie Tristano, James Reese Europe, Wilbur Sweatman, Thelonious Monk, Zora Neale Hurston, Jelly Roll Morton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Varese, Dave Schildkraut, Bud Powell, W.E.B. DuBois, Frank Melrose, Paul Whiteman, Bill Challis, Harry Barris, George Bacquet, Harriet Beecher Stowe, James P. Johnson, Albert Ayler, Ran Blake, Henry Mancini, Sun Ra, Mezz Mezzrow, Pete Daily, Allen Tate, Robert Lowell, Bill Triglia, George Gershwin, Frank Teschemacher, Jess Stacy, Bix Beiderbecke, Arizona Dranes, Bert Williams, George Wheeler, Barbara Payne, Clyde Bernhardt, Ma Rainey, Anthony Braxton, Joe Jordan, Jaki Byard, Fess Manetta, Lester Young, Duke Ellington . . . and more.

The curious — and I hope there are many — will listen to samples here and then plunge in — this set costs less than two CDs and is wonderfully lively. You can also learn more at Allen’s website and blog (called EVERYTHING ELSE IS POST MODERNISM) — where Frankie “Half-Pint” Jaxon and Norman Mailer, compelled to share a subway seat, eye each other with suspicion.

I admire Allen Lowe’s courage, range, and audacities. The music is often, on first hearing, “weird,” but that’s a compliment. A little weirdness is like good seasoning: so much missed in the music we are sold, so richly enhancing in the right proportions.

And to return to the austere Robert Frost.  My letter to him, unsent and unread, is as follows:Dear Mr. Frost. If you removed the net, you might not have tennis, but you certainly would have an engaging dance.”

May your happiness increase!

“I’M DONE”: EDDIE HUNTER, ALEX ROGERS, LUCKEYETH ROBERTS

I first heard this piece of ancient but still witty vaudeville thanks to Allen Lowe’s massive CD box set, THAT DEVILIN’ TUNE . . . and although my emotional life is far more tranquil and gratifying, this is one of my favorite recordings.  Perhaps it appeals to my deep inner silliness; I find it ingenious all the way from the introduction to the two singers in harmony for a few seconds at the end.

And what’s just as remarkable is the flexible, varied, lightly swinging stride piano accompaniment by C. Luckeyeth Roberts — Luckey to those more casual — that is as light, bright, and sparking as anything Fats or James P. ever recorded.  (It has the same lovely distracting quality of a Jess Stacy accompaniment, pulling my attention away from what is supposed to be the main event.)  Early on: December 17, 1923.

Enjoy this little frolic — first for the mock-serious indignation of Hunter and Rogers, then for the lacy twining of the piano — delicious and never over-done.

Here, courtesy of the Library of Congress and the “National Jukebox,” is a comic swinging pleasure.  Remember to “make a wush”!

May your happiness increase.

ALLEN LOWE’S NEWEST [BLUES] CORNUCOPIA

Musician, composer, and scholar Allen Lowe doesn’t hold back — either in generosity, scope, or opinions.  And he has perhaps the widest range of any musician I know: from Louis, Eubie, and Doc Cheatham (as well as the shade of Jack Purvis) reaching forward to Julius Hemphill, Matthew Shipp, and Marc Ribot. 

His book and CD set, THAT DEVILIN’ TUNE, was a re-presentation of the history of recorded jazz, and it did so with audacious delight across thirty-six discs, from the eighteen-nineties to the nineteen-fifties.  Lowe’s criteria for inclusion (and exclusion) excited some listeners and irritated others, but no one could ignore the heroic sweep of music presented in those four neat boxes.  

Some music scholars operate by exclusion and create their own criteria for artistic purity: if a performance doesn’t fit in the box they’ve made, it can’t be considered valid.  (Think of the airlines’ measurements for carry-on luggage and you get the idea.)  Like Whitman, Lowe is fascinated by elasticities, by stretching rather than closing-off. 

Lowe wants us to hear as if for the first time — in much the same way that Conrad said the novelist wanted to make us see.  He arranges his music, delighting in pushing aside the limiting constructs of race, gender, or “genre.”  So the expected nestles in beside the surprising, and this collage-approach encourages or forces the listener to hear just how explosive a Bert Williams, a Jelly Roll Morton, a Ma Rainey, was — as well as the artists we’ve not yet heard. 

The other parallel motion of a Lowe set is to say to us, “Listen to this!  You have large music collections, but I’ll bet you haven’t heard this.”  And few of us will be able to say, “I know all of the music presented here.” 

The question mark says a good deal about Lowe’s inquiring approach to this or any other musical subject. 

When I initially heard that he had completed one of his astonishing cornucopias on the loosely-defined subject of the blues, I was fascinated and more that a bit worried.  How would anyone endure thirty-six compact discs (nearly a thousand tracks) trapped within the twelve-bar blues form, with the occasional detour for the eight-bar and sixteen-bar varieties.  “My man’s gone,” “My woman’s gone,” “My old daddy’s got a brand new way to love,” “It hurts so good,” “Money all gone,” “Flood washed my house away,” “Why am I poor?” and variations on those tropes . . .

I needn’t have worried.  Always relying on his own imoulses, Lowe trusts himself, so his collection isn’t restricted to “official” blues performances using three chords only.  And the juxtapositions are thrilling — consider this sequence of four recordings from 1922 and 1923: Society Blues (Kid Ory and Mutt Carey); Teasin’ the Frets (Nick Lucas); I Ain’t Got Nobody (Marion Harris); Midnight Blues (Ethel Waters).  Although perhaps it is not something most jazz / blues listeners would like to admit, they would privilege some names above others as “authentic” (Ory and Waters) and others as “popular,” “derivative,” “vaudevillian.”  For many listeners, race would enter into their assessment.  There’s no question that Waters bursts upon the ear with a great soulful immediacy, but then again so does Harris.  And Nick Lucas has just as much fervor as Ory’s Sunshne Orchestra.  The surprises come thick and fast: I saw Sophie Tucker as a huge elderly Hot Mama on television some forty-five years ago: her 1922 AGGRAVATIN’ PAPA is fresh and lively, belying its age, her race, and the musical associations Ms. Tucker is saddled with.  So does Eddie Cantor in 1924. 

And since many listeners tend to burrow deeply but narrowly into their chosen loves, I wonder how many jazz / blues fanciers will know the music of The Pebbles, The Two of Spades, the Old Pal Smoke Shop Four, and others (I am leaving aside the early gospel recordings as an area many have never ventured into.)

The juxtapositions — both theoretical and actual — are vivid and fascinating.  Consider this list of thirteen recordings — all except one from the second half of 1927:  PENN BEACH BLUES (Venuti – Lang ) / BLACK HEARSE BLUES (Sarah Martin – Sylvester Weaver) / COLD PENITENTIARY BLUES (E.F. Shelton) / SHAKIN’ THE BLUES AWAY (Ruth Etting) / THE CROWING ROOSTER (Walter Rhodes) / CREOLE LOVE CALL (Ellington) / GOD’S GOING TO SEPARATE THE WHEAT FROM THE TARES (Blind Joe Taggart) / JAZZ ME BLUES / ROYAL GARDEN BLUES (Bix and his Gang) / CHATTANOOGA BLUES (Allen Bros.) / NEW ORLEANS LOWDOWN (Ellington) / BARRELHOUSE MAN (Will Ezell) / I AM BORN TO PREACH THE GOSPEL (Washington Phillips). 

It is rather like coming to stay with the world’s most avid and generous collector of music who throws his or her shelves open to the listener, offering treasures, “common” recordings, and rarities, without a pre-set ideology or value system.  Lowe doesn’t say that everything is equal or important, but that it all means something in the larger picture of a culture, of shifting musical landscapes.  This is the first leg of a thrilling journey, and (to carry the metaphor to its logical conclusion) we couldn’t have a better guide. 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a lot of deep listening and reconsidering to do!  (So do you, if I may be so bold.) 

You can order the first volume of four at http://www.allenlowe.com

Here’s the link to the complete track list for the entire 36-CD set (in four volumes):

http://www.allenlowe.com/alpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/Really-The-Blues-Song-List.pdf

WHILE YOU’RE UP, CLICK HERE: ALL MONEY GOES TO THE MUSICIANS!

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