Thursday, August 18, 2011

CD Review: Allen Lowe - Blues and the Empirical Truth

Allen Lowe
Blues and the Empirical Truth
(Music and Arts)

Ah, music critics. Ask them a yes or no question about an album and you'll get an oratory. Ask for a compilation and you might get... a nine-disc anthology.
That's just what Allen Lowe compiled in the recent past. The descriptively-titled American Pop: An Audio History - From Minstrel to Mojo: On Record 1893-1946 contained nine discs. Then he outdid himself with That Devilin' Tune: A Jazz History 1895-1950, which contained a whopping 36 pieces of plastic. And you probably don't believe that much music was even recorded during that period. In addition to compiling the music, Lowe also wrote extensive texts to go along with each of these productions. Some might call it crazy, but it makes Lowe a man after my own heart.

In addition to being an extensive musical commentator ("critic" seems like a limiting word here) Lowe is also a musician himself, another trait to which I can relate and admire. To add a personal note on that subject before I take myself out of this story, I feel a certain a kinship in his alto saxophone playing because his tone reminds me of what I aspired to sound like years ago when I thought I had a future on the horn: a clean tone with raw edges, and a searching quality that's equally ready to blow straight or scream at a moment's notice. (Personally I never got past the aspiration part to the actual execution of such a sound, but that's another story.)

Lowe the musician is gifted on the alto, but also picks up the C-melody and tenor horns, in addition to being extremely fluent on guitar. For his own music project Blues and the Empirical Truth (a witty play on Oliver Nelson's Blues and the Abstract Truth) he has produced no less that three discs of music. One volume lasts 66 minutes while the other two creep close to 80 minutes each. True to his other calling, Lowe offers track by track analysis. Some of this comes in quick phrases or a few sentences. One goes on for a whole paragraph - or is it sentence - which includes a parenthetical statement that on its own could be a short paragraph in itself. The set-up reminds me of philosophy tomes that I read in college. The comparison makes sense since the subject is empirical truth. Besides, music is a more interesting subject that existentialism anyway.

Three discs is a pretty serious listening commitment and speaks to an artist's confidence in his output, but truth be told there's very little filler on this whole set, save for the occasional track that noodles a little with multiple solos happening at once. Lowe is joined by a pretty heavy group of friends including veteran trombonist Roswell Rudd, guitarist Marc Ribot, pianist Matthew Shipp (who also plays Farfisa!) and pianist Lewis Porter, among others. The blues can be a limiting structure, but this is nothing like an attempt to chronicle all the various styles of blues and present them for consumption. Sometimes it feels like a blues set, other times it's a jazz set, and with his references to Richard Hell and the Velvet Underground in his notes, inspirations comes to Lowe from beyond even these immediate sources. Titles like "(Bull Connor Sees) Darkies on the Delta" and "Pauli Murray, at the Back of the Bus, Suddenly Realize She Has the Blues" prove that Lowe also has a handle on the social issues that informed a lot of the music from its earliest days. Out of context - meaning right here - the titles might seem glib, but don't believe it. They come out of empathy or understanding.

More so than my previous description, Lowe's alto playing sounds a bit like Ornette Coleman if the latter had straightened up and flown right. Clear and sometimes plaintive, it also has a combative quality somewhat like Archie Shepp on "Blues and Transfiguration" which has a Mingus mood in the composition. Anyone who can hold his own in a wild exchanges with Rudd really knows his stuff anyway, and "Entrance, No Exit" and the several installments of "Ras Speaks" prove that. They also show Shipp in a very subdued state, holding down chords on an organ with a tone that seems to thin for a heavyweight like him, while the two horns have all the fun. (Although Shipp's volume changes in one gets a little trippy.)

Guitarist Ray Suhy appears frequently throughout the set, with a skillful approach that varies his sound from straight blues to something a little wilder, depending on the setting. Ribot is his usual spiky self, and speaking of that adjective, a gentleman named Spike Sikes also plays alto, which gives Lowe a chance to play his other instruments. His guitar recalls Black Flag's Greg Ginn, a remote comparison true, but both have a tendency to get so manic during a solo that tempo gets overlooked in favor of passion. Maybe it's just my limited blues knowledge showing, but he also plays with the adventurous scope of Zoot Horn Rollo's best moments with Captain Beefheart. (Now there's someone to draft for the next session.)

The only odd element to the whole set is Jake Millet's use of electronic drums. On the first disc, they sound appropriate - sounding like little more than a battered ride cymbal that holds things together. As time goes on, it almost feels like Sunny Murray has dropped by, agreeing not to do his usual thing, but never completely settling into a straight tempo. The decaying sound of the cymbal sounds fun, like a delay pedal was accidentally bumped. But by the last disc, the thin sound has one wondering why a real trap kit wasn't used.

If there's any justice in this world Blues and the Empirical Truth should win an award for its packaging alone. Along with all the music, the three-panel cover includes a booklet not only of Lowe's thoughts (which are equally deep, fiery and humorous), but an introductory essay by Village Voice columnist Francis Davis. Hopefully Lowe doesn't take that as an oversight of the music (like Mingus did when he won Best Liner Notes for Let My Children Hear Music).

But there I go, dropping music trivia like a music scribe who knows too much. This isn't an item designed just for the likes of Lowe and Davis and lower-totem-pole music geek/scribes like me. This is music for people who still get excited about music, and relish the size of packages like this.

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