Allen Lowe: Jews & Roots (An Avant Garde of Our Own — Disconnected Works: 1980-2018) (ESP-Disk’)

A review of the eight-disc set from the saxophonist/composer

Allen Lowe, Jews & Roots
The cover of Jews & Roots (An Avant Garde of Our Own — Disconnected Works: 1980-2018) by Allen Lowe

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.

For a guy who spent a good half of his career in bucolic but jazz-less South Portland, Maine, it’s hard to believe that Lowe was able to recruit the likes of Julius Hemphill, Doc Cheatham, Marc Ribot, David Murray, Hamiet Bluiett, Matthew Shipp (on a Farfisa organ!), and Roswell Rudd (who turns in a spectacular solo on “Louis’ Pennies” from a 1994 concert) to play his compositions. Yet he did—for a long time.

Some of what’s documented here has been plucked from Lowe’s earlier records. Most of this, however, comprises new-ish and previously unissued material. There are garage tapes from 1980, Knitting Factory concert tracks from the ’90s, and home recordings from the past decade. Several long suites were laid down as recently as last year. And much of it is politically pointed or at least socially aware, with titles like “Black Brown and Beige, Yellow, Trans and Queer: My Country ’Tis of This” and “Hymn for the White Folks” (aimed squarely at Trump’s supporters). Musically it’s all over the map, with shades of Louis Armstrong’s earliest work, electric guitar-driven avant-garde, and everything in between—sometimes in the same song. At times his aesthetic is in line with Henry Threadgill; at others he seems to channel early Sun Ra. Then he throws a curveball and sounds like Nels Cline (who, of course, appears here).

As you might expect from the set’s punning title, Mingus’ shadow hangs over a decent chunk of Jews & Roots. That’s especially true on the suites that constitute the fourth disc, whose music was written after the 2016 election and whose titles show it: “Fables of Fascism,” “Border Crossing.” Lowe dips into early West Coast jazz on tunes like “Strollin’ With Helen” and goes back further, to hot jazz and King Oliver territory, on “Rhythm Thing” and “Mental Strain at Dawn.” Then he leaps forward to atonal electric shredding on “Oh Molly Dear,” gets Twin Peaks-y on “Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground,” serves up hard bop, dabbles in avant country jazz, and parodies “Walk on the Wild Side” on “Where’s Lou Reed.” His versatility comes to full fruition on the set’s first track, 1991’s “March of the Vipers,” which runs from skronk and Air-style avant-garde to New Orleans second-line. His liner notes are similarly wide-ranging—on one hand paying tribute to Jaki Byard, Mary Lou Williams, and an obscure cabaret singer; on the other taking swipes at his onetime collaborator Don Byron, Trump voters, and his former home state of Maine. But the most unexpected thing across these eight CDs? The tender and soulful tenor-sax reading he gives “Stars Fell on Alabama” (titled simply “Stars Fell” here) in a 1985 recording. It’s as sincere as it is beautiful.

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Steve Greenlee

Steve Greenlee is the managing editor of the Portland Press Herald in Maine and a former longtime editor and jazz critic at The Boston Globe. He plays keyboards in two local cover bands.