Of all the people who’ve ever made jazz, Allen Lowe may be the hardest to figure out. He’s a frustrating genius who seems to disdain commercial success despite having all the skills to attain it. He’s a saxophonist, composer, musicologist, preservationist, historian, author, lecturer, and curmudgeon who writes obscure books that few people read and makes great, weird records that just about no one hears. He blends blues, bebop, avant-garde, free jazz, and punk rock into a wonderfully singular concoction; lures A-list musicians to help create it; and then issues it on multi-disc sets with titles like Jews in Hell. It’s as if every piece of art he makes is a middle finger to convention. Now, at age 65, he’s put out an eight-CD career-spanning survey called Jews & Roots—on ESP-Disk’, the home of Albert Ayler reissues and Sun Ra box sets, no less—that gathers his favorite moments from 40 years of a financially unrewarding career.
Few people are going to buy this $75 set, and that’s too bad. Unlike much of what’s labeled avant-garde or “out jazz” these days, Lowe’s work is largely accessible. It’s melodic and rhythmic; you can tap your feet to it and hum its themes. But, as the collection’s subtitle suggests, there’s little connective tissue in the music presented here, and it doesn’t fit anyone’s preconception of what jazz should or shouldn’t be. It’s not traditional, and it’s not not traditional.