Frank Lowe Quartet – Out Loud [TrackList follows] – Triple Point TPR 209, stereo audiophile vinyl (2 discs), 81:87 [11/4/13] ***1/2:
(Frank Lowe – tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, flute, voice, percussion, congas, balafon, whistles, harmonica, miscellaneous small instruments; Joseph Bowie – trombone, congas; William Parker – bass; Steve Reid – drums; Ahmed Abdullah – trumpet (side D))
Saxophonist Frank Lowe typically gets lumped into the free jazz and/or avant-garde jazz genres, but he might better be dubbed a free-form artist. He was a sideman with Alice Coltrane and Sun Ra before he began composing and recording under his own name; and was integral to New York City’s 1970s jazz loft milieu. Lowe may not be as recognizable as other likeminded artists such as Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor or Don Cherry (Lowe helped on Cherry’s 1973 Relativity Suite and 1975’s Brown Rice), but Lowe was a busy musician with nearly 30 albums to his credit, from 1973 to 2002 (Lowe passed away in 2003).
The latest Lowe recording is the deluxe, vinyl-only, double-LP set, Out Loud, over 80 minutes of never-heard, rough and loose material by the Frank Lowe Quartet: Lowe on multiple instruments; Steve Reid (other sessions included James Brown, Miles Davis, and Sun Ra) on drums; the incomparable William Parker on bass (who worked with Taylor, David S. Ware and Peter Brötzmann); and Joseph Bowie (founder of jazz fusion band Defunkt) on trombone and congas. Trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah (who played with Chico Freeman, Charles Brackeen, and Marion Brown) is added to one lengthy side. Out Loud documents two unreleased, 1974 gatherings taped at the height of the Big Apple loft jazz scene. Ed Hazell explains in his brilliantly-penned liner notes (part of a big 9 1/2-inch x 11 1/2-inch, 38-page insert booklet), this uncompromising material was planned as Lowe’s follow-up to his 1973 album, Black Beings, to showcase both Lowe’s volatile music and his latest group (only Parker at been on Black Beings). Instead, the Black Lion label issued another record, Fresh. Subsequently, the master tapes which yielded the Out Loud material sat in Lowe’s possession and did not resurface until after Lowe had passed away.
The first LP (sides A and B) was taped by former Coltrane drummer Rashied Ali at his loft, Ali’s Alley, in early May, 1974, although this session is credited to Survival Studio on this LP, which refers to Ali’s Survival imprint. The five pieces are thematically connected and were originally meant to be a suite entitled “Act of Freedom,” although the existing elements are not strictly structured as such. The untitled 11-minute opener displays Lowe’s intense, Coltrane-esque tone. While the music is seemingly chaotic, there is an instinctual melody and tempo which underlies the outbound music. The quartet creates the impression of anarchy but, in fact, they mesh as a singular unit, but one unafraid of tension and full-throated force. There are moments when Reid’s sudden percussive changes seem to surprise Parker, but at other times Reid’s lightning-fast cymbals and Parker’s bass pulse together. Side A’s other piece, the eight-minute “Vivid Description,” is a dramatic example of how Lowe linked free improvisation with composition. There are bright, searing phrases (particularly from Lowe’s sax and Parker’s slashing arco bass), quickly altering tempo variations and shouted encouragements, but also flashes of calm, including Parker’s sublime bass or when Lowe switches to flute.
The sense of respite carries over to the concise, atmospheric “Listen,” which echoes Cherry’s world music/folk music jazz, although the cut is marred by wordless chants and vocalized effects. The second, untitled piece (which runs an extensive 12 minutes) has a similar modulation in beat, groove and tempo. Again, Reid modifies his percussion so rapidly there is a feeling the proceedings are going to fall apart, but Parker keeps up, although not effortlessly. As Bowie points out in the liner notes, “This is the groove of a volcano. Anyone who has heard a thunderstorm knows this has a groove.” Soon after the initial disorder evens out, a repetitive groove is formulated which has a nearly funk-like movement, on top of which Lowe extemporizes both instrumentally (utilizing his underused soprano sax) and vocally (from unintelligible chants to yells of “Out Loud!”), while Bowie delivers his most brash trombone soloing of the session. The closer is the truncated, 40-second “Logical Extensions.” Attentive listeners may notice an unusual balance between the horns. That’s because Bowie has an explosive sound which could cause distortion if he stood too close to a microphone, so he was quite far from his mic during the Survival Studios session.
The second LP contains of two side-length excursions which blend improvisations with themes from previously heard material. This elastic music stretches with creativity, and was taped in summer 1974 at Studio Rivbea, a loft space operated by musician Sam Rivers and his wife, Bea. Side C consists of the 23-minute, aptly-titled “Whew!” Lowe and Bowie often bounce or clash their phrases, sometimes crafting interlaced lines into hard-edged sound shards. The material is purposely fragmented. There are some awkward instances, and the flow seems patchy at times, although there is constructive lyricism during softer segments. Side D has a 24-minute, untitled epic improvisation, which is comparable to “Whew!,” although overall the tempo is more reduced, although far from tranquil. Abdullah’s trumpet has a boppish demeanor, which adds a different personality missing from other numbers. One limitation is the sound quality, which is lower than the Survival Studio session. The mix is fine, but levels are diminished when compared to sides A and B. Some might observe Bowie’s trombone is not as upfront as the sax and trumpet. That’s because he was positioned farther from his microphone, as he was during the Survival Studio session. The Studio Rivbea session was also videotaped, an infrequent occurrence in those days. There is a link and password included with the LP which allows buyers free access to the 40-minute AVI online video. The stereo audio quality is great except for hum caused by the aged 1/2-inch videotape. The video is grainy, shaky and scratchy, but includes some music not on the LP. The single-shot, sync-sound footage reveals how Lowe’s group interacted, just how far Bowie stepped away from his microphone, and that Reid had an uncommon drum kit setup due to being left-handed.
The package is exemplary. The hand-numbered set (only 550 copies were manufactured) is housed in a thick cardboard gatefold jacket. The 38-page booklet includes Hazell’s meticulously researched, multi-chapter writings which cover Lowe’s childhood and formative years, woodshedding and studying in San Francisco, his period with Sun Ra in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s work with Alice Coltrane, mentoring by Sonny Simmons and Cherry, establishing his own ensemble, and a rundown on what happened during the two sessions which make up Out Loud. New interviews with some who were at the sessions enhance the text. Co-producer Ben Young outlines further details related to chronology, and specifics about the online video. There is also a short remembrance from Lowe’s colleague, saxophonist J.D. Parran, and numerous, archival, unpublished black-and-white photos. All audio was carefully transferred and optimized by Young and Joe Lizzi, who mastered the Grammy-nominated, New York Art Quartet 2013 set on Triple Point.
TrackList:Side A: Untitled 1; Vivid Description Side B: Listen; Untitled 2; Logical Extensions Side C: Whew! Sice D: Untitled 3; Closing Announcement