“Low Down,” the New Film About Unsung Piano Master Joe Albany

An "Everyday Joe" struggles through the '70s

John Hawkes as Joe Albany in "Low Down"
Joe Albany

Low Down, the jazz-soaked film inspired by the life of underappreciated bebop pianist Joe Albany, owes its birth to a bit of serendipity. Jeff Preiss, best known for his gorgeous black-and-white cinematography in the impressionistic Chet Baker documentary Let’s Get Lost, was shooting a TV commercial in Los Angeles when he met Amy-Jo Albany, Joe’s daughter, who was in the crew. She was playing Baker’s music on a boom box. “I told him I knew Chet, and that he was a fri¬end of my dad’s,” she says.

Recounts Preiss, “Amy said, ‘I never meet non-musicians that know my dad’s music.'”

Preiss’ independent film, with Oscar nominee John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone) as Albany, Elle Fanning as his daughter, Glenn Close, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea and Peter Dinklage, is likely to bring much-deserved attention to Albany. The pianist and composer, born in Atlantic City, played with Benny Carter, Lester Young, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis in the ’40s, and made his debut as a leader with the 1957 Riverside label LP The Right Combination, featuring Warne Marsh. He worked briefly with Charles Mingus in the mid-’60s and began recording again in the early ’70s. Albany, known for agile improvisations on uptempo pieces, a lyrical approach to ballads and a soft spot for compositions by Billy Strayhorn and Parker and from the American Songbook, fought heroin and alcohol addiction for much of his life. He died in New York in 1988, at age 63.

Albany’s LP with saxophonist Marsh, a rehearsal session recorded at the L.A. home of a jazz fan and focused mostly on standards, resonated strongly with Preiss. “It’s a very mysterious album,” he says. “It’s so casual, so relaxed, so offhand and so at home. On ‘Angel Eyes,’ I could hear a true heartbroken sadness, like the essence of a broken heart was in that solo. I’d never been moved so specifically by something like that.”

So when Preiss met Amy-Jo, he already felt a kinship with her father, and sought out recollections of her time with Joe. She offered up tales of a time and place-L.A. in the mid-’70s-when jazz musicians and other creative artists struggled to eke out a living in the shadow of Hollywood’s dream factory, and to fight their own demons. “I loved listening to her tell stories-her ability to spin an oral history is amazing,” Preiss says. “I wanted to make a movie with her right away.” The two corresponded when the filmmaker returned to New York. In 2003, those pieces were published as Amy-Jo’s memoir, Low Down: Junk, Jazz, and Other Fairy Tales From Childhood.

Low Down initially was optioned by a major studio, but when production wasn’t greenlighted, it again became available to Preiss. The screenplay, co-written by Albany and Topper Lilien, went through 16 drafts, along the way evolving from a narrative overview of the pianist’s life, with four actresses playing Amy-Jo at various ages, to one with a tighter focus, concentrating on a two-year period beginning when she was 13. “It wasn’t a great time for him, as far as his creative output, this window of time that we were together and he couldn’t get work,” she says. During those days, Albany scraped for occasional jobs at Donte’s jazz club and elsewhere, most often playing casually with friends, including a couple of obscure trumpet players portrayed by Flea in the film as a composite character named Hobbs. “They were so passionate when they were playing. You had this sense that when they would be in a good place, they would be getting lost in it,” she says.

Flea, a passionate jazz fan and trumpeter Amy-Jo first met during her days at Hollywood High, and Chili Peppers frontman Anthony Kiedis played a significant role in helping make Low Down a reality. Elle Fanning signed on as Albany’s daughter, after initially being cast as a younger version of Amy-Jo, then also slated to be played by her sister Dakota Fanning.

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Hawkes, who already had skills on guitar, bass and keyboards, managed in just a few weeks to learn aspects of jazz piano well enough to perform Albany’s parts without requiring a hand double, thanks largely to the tutelage of multi-instrumentalist Ohad Talmor. Talmor, a fan of The Right Combination since he was 16, contributed his own compositions and arrangements of Albany’s tunes to the soundtrack, which also includes recordings by Albany, Monk and Max Roach. (The cast of musicians Talmor employed to perform his score included some of current jazz’s best young players, like pianist Jacob Sacks and drummer Dan Weiss.) “Joe Albany is not known as a vanguard player, but he embodies the strengths of a certain artistic period-the reality of a deeply rooted blue-collar jazz musician that has honesty and integrity and a voice of its own,” Talmor says. “He was always someone important to me. It was very personal, and I wanted to do it justice in that sense.” A soundtrack CD is slated for release on the Light in the Attic label.

Low Down, shot on 16mm for a visual feel that is more gritty and naturalistic than slick, is as much a coming-of-age story as a biopic. It is also, Albany says, as much a jazz film as it is a dramatic reverie on characters who might be viewed as lost but are driven by their own creative passions: “It’s a jazz film, a love story, a poem to my father, but also to Los Angeles.”