Friday, March 2, 2012

Allen Lowe - Blues and the Empirical Truth [Music and Arts, 2011]

Words: Gian Paolo Galasi

Allen Lowe, Marc Ribot, Lewis Porter, Ray Shury, Jake Millet
Did you ever felt a deep struggle, listening to some records, to be aware that you are listening to amazing music but that the project is maybe at risk of being lost in the big sea of today's huge amount of releases? 

If so, you can deeply understand  what I'm feeling everytime I give a spin to Allen Lowe's last year effort, the three CD + 12 page booklet set - have you ever complained for a 3 cd set nowadays? now's the time to change yer mind - that under the title of The Blues and the Empirical Truth collects 52 compositions in which the now Portland-based multi-reedist and guitarist shows to the world what does it means to take blues, gospel, cakewalk, Albert Ayler, hollers, The Carter Family, and Cripple Clarence Lofton, and to use creatively that kind of DNA and tracks giving life to a music, as Lowe himself observes, born of 'things lacking in the music world, or at least I perceive to be lacking'. 

Born in Massapequa Park, NY, in the 1950s, Allen Lowe started playing saxophone in jazz groups aged 15, at the Slugs Saloon - Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman played there - finalizing his education with Super Sessions (Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield), Grateful Dead, Louis Armstrong and The Mothers of Invention. 

Roswell Rudd
Right in the middle of the Seventies, he befriended Al Haigh, Curly Russell, Bill Triglia, Dick Katz, Tommy Potter, and met Lenny Tristano, Jaki Byrd and Art Pepper. Finally relocated in New Haven, Connecticut in the '80s, Lowe started playing with David Murray, Julius Hemphill, Don Byron, Roswell Rudd in clubs as the Knitting Factory and for Enja - for which he recorded the first reenactment of Blind Willie Johnson's Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground - and Music and Arts labels. 

Director of Jazz in New Haven in the 90s - a free outdoor summer festival that featured Tony Williams, Max Roach, Freddie Hubbard under Lowe's artistic direction, once moved to South Portland, Maine, after a period of inactivity the musician took again guitar and composing, learning sound restoration while working on books as American Pop from Minstrel to Mojo (issued by Cadence with a 9CD set), The Devilin' Tune: A Jazz History 1900-1950 (issued by Music and arts with a 36CD set), and Really the Blues? A Blues History 1893-1959, the last two published without any institutional financial support. 

Mattew Shipp
While Allen Lowe's modernistic approach to music is widely recognized as enriching the matter he's digging, and highly praised by the likes of the composer Anthony Braxton and journalist and author Greil Marcus, the 3CD set of The Blues and the Empirical Truth is not only structured around Lowe's deep knowledge through his 'restructural' skills on the blues and folk tradition, and by his almost harmolodic-flavored alto saxophone - as in the Mingus-inspired, cubist boppish moans of Blues and Transfiguration, C-melody sax, tenor sax and guitar, but also embellished by Matt Shipp's piano and farfisa, Marc Ribot deconstructive attitude, Roswell Rudd and his trombone - particularly brilliant as on Manhattan Moan, and a well-trained assembly of lesser known - but highly expressive - players as guitarist Ray Suhy - listen to his duo with Lowe on The Children of Ella Mae Wiggis, altoist Spike Sikes, bassists Jessie Hautala, Derek Reynolds and Chris Day, pianist Lewis Porter, singer Todd Hutchinsen and drummer Jake Millet.

Marc Ribot
There aren't collective renditions on the album, but small groups - from duets to quintets - and a multi-layered attempt to give life to new music welcoming the most diverse and brilliant approaches to the music matter itself. Take for instance No 5 No Flats No Sharps Blues, inspired by both the attitude of the classic Delta singers to stay on the chord changes while keeping themselves instrumentally on the 1st chord with the non-synch typical of Ornette and Don Cherry, or the field hollers inspired Mama, Mercy Comes in Spurt duet between Lowe's Richard Hell-flavored guitar and the almost metaphysic Shipp's interpretation of a ragtime; or again, the cross pollination between the White Folks and The Primitive Baptists, reminiscent of John Zwed's essays on the creolization of American music and embellished by a brassy Sikes' alto solo, whose alternation with Suhy's guitar statement is the kind that fully explains their value even outside a record like this one.

This set is one that really make you understand how music can be fully enjoyable, while rich and complex at the same time, as on the 11 minutes of Reconstruction Dreams (The Ballad of Blind Tom), dedicated to Blind Tom Bethune, one of the many nuggets Lowe's attitude to dig out of the history of music put newly the lights on. Blind Tom was a possibly autistic slave, born in 1849, that from early childhood started touring as a pianist due to his brilliant technique and his ability to replicate any music he heard, while writing on his own spiritual and expressionistic pieces that are almost philosophycal reflections on the human condition through music; the long suite Lowe, Ribot, Porter, Huatala and Millet dedicate to his memory is, as the other compositions herein, an attempt to give back to present life the richness and the deep charm, beyond mythologies and narrations, the music in his forming is able to communicate to who listen, as the quote - better said: the invitation - by Miles Davis reported on the back cover can testify.

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