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Various Artists: Lowdown: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

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When you consider how difficult it is to get any film produced and into distribution these days-let alone one about a jazz musician-it’s quite something that Low Down made it to the finish line. Joe Albany is hardly a household name, and his story isn’t a feel-good tale: Starring John Hawkes as the pianist and Elle Fanning as his daughter Amy-Jo (on whose book it was based), it centers largely on Albany’s tragic struggle with drug addiction-not exactly date fare for the multiplex.

The soundtrack, stripped free of the film’s plotline, attempts to tell a different story, one of Albany’s mastery and significance. Of its 15 tracks, fewer than half are actually attributed to Albany; the rest are divvied among Ohad Talmor, who composed the film’s original score, and Albany’s contemporaries and influences, including Thelonious Monk, Max Roach, Coleman Hawkins and a Ben Webster/Jack Teagarden pair-up on “Big Eight Blues.”

Given the relative dearth of Albany’s music available currently, a full set devoted to his own work would have served as a more useful introduction (or, better yet, one Albany disc and a second for the score). Nevertheless, there’s enough here to make a case for Albany as a sadly neglected figure in jazz, from a slightly off-kilter, bluesy reading of “Angel Eyes” to the melancholy “The Nearness of You.”

Those vintage recordings sync fluidly with the four featured tracks from Talmor’s Large Ensemble, among them a languid, dusky “‘Round Midnight” spotlighting pianist Jacob Sacks, and “Free Couples,” two minutes of bassist Matt Pavolka and drummer Dan Weiss involved in a skittering chase. “AJ Blues,” the soundtrack’s outro, borders on the shambolic, a battery of horns (Talmor himself and several others) and the rhythm players giddily going any which way they please.

The set’s somewhat erratic nature is exacerbated by wildly dramatic shifts in sound quality: Some of the older tracks are distant and muddy, as if recorded from the next room with a cheap cassette machine; others, including the frolicsome “Barbados” and a monumental solo take on “Lush Life,” as well as the Talmor music, are crisp and contemporary. Here’s hoping for a proper Joe Albany retrospective set.

Originally Published