Frank Lowe Quartet – Out Loud
(Triple Point Records TPR 209. LP review by Andrew Cartmel)
Frank Lowe (1943-2003) was a Memphis tenor man who followed a very intriguing career trajectory. He started off in the far-out reaches of free jazz as an avant-garde player indebted to Coltrane and Albert Ayler and then moved inwards towards the centre, ending with more of an R&B based sound influenced by the likes of Ben Webster and Chu Berry. In a sense this was coming full circle for Lowe, one of whose first jobs was working at the studios of the great Memphis R&B label, Stax. Indeed one of the founders of Stax, saxophonist Packy Axton, tutored the young player.
Frank Lowe got his first break playing with Sun Ra, probably in New York, where he sat beside Marshall Allen and John Gilmore in the sax section. He was particularly impressed by Gilmore, who catalysed Lowe’s experiments with false-fingering technique. (Alternative finger placements to achieve tonal qualities and densities of sound which can’t be produced by conventional methods on the same note.) Recommended by Ornette Coleman, Lowe went on to join Alice Coltrane’s band and record with her. He later worked with Don Cherry and John Zorn.
This impressive vinyl-only issue retrieves the lost recordings of a short-lived quartet from 1974 when Lowe was playing with trombonist Joseph Bowie, bassist William Parker and drummer Steve Reid. Trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah sits in on one track. No expense has been spared on this deluxe double LP package which includes a large, lavish booklet (beautifully designed, by Svenja Knoedler) containing what amounts to a pocket biography of Frank Lowe as well as a detailed account of the genesis of the album Out Loud, illustrated with unpublished photos by Val Wilmer.
Untitled 1 propels us into the high energy music with a rapid run on the bass. William Parker’s frantic pulsing leads into raucous ensemble work that shows the distinctive imprint of Lowe’s time with Sun Ra. Blurting blasts of sax are set against Parker’s metronome-steady bass which begins to slow down as the piece deconstructs itself. Steve Reid’s shimmering cymbals provide background for Lowe’s strident statement on the tenor, squawking and squeaking, blasting raw ragged fragments while Parker’s smooth, cleanly defined bass keeps pace like the sweet voice of reason. Trombonist Bowie remains at a distance from the proceedings, providing primal, almost tormented blasts of sound which call to mind Charlie Barnet’s description of free jazz as sounding like an elephant in, ahem, testicular discomfort — but in a good way.
On Vivid Description the reach and range of the musicians is demonstrated, with Parker sawing at his bass like a giant, agonised violin and Frank Lowe demonstrating his delicacy of touch on the flute. Reid develops a spare, mesmeric pulse on the cymbals before the ensemble blossoms into elaborate fevered decorations. Listen is a brief interlude, delightful and surprising, which begins with bright tinkling, streaming percussion and progresses as a mosaic of oriental shards — a flurry of drums, wordless snarling vocals, whistles and trombone phrases. Untitled 2 is relentless, with Parker’s bass squeezing energy from the players and, in league with Reid’s shimmering avalanche of drums, creating great tension and excitement. Lowe’s high, piercing sax floats over a bed of circus sounds, performing snake-charming enticements and darting and stinging like a wasp, while Bowie’s trombone moans and rages. The intense, repetitive vocal interjections once again conjure up Sun Ra.
Whew! has a Mingus feel, calling to mind A Foggy Day (in London Town) from . The piece assembles itself from sparse fragments and it is meditative, brooding and quiet, pulsating with scintillating, plaintive bursts of harmonica from Frank Lowe who also returns to his snake-charmer sax, trilling, barking, blurting and murmuring. Bowie’s trombone unfurls, spinning in loops around Lowe’s sax, making spooked-horse cries then subsiding into elegant eloquence. Frank Lowe performs a parallel trick, alternating tortured phrases with polished, melodic statement. Parker creates a relentless and unsettling trembling on the strings of his bass while bells ring like an unheeded fire alarm.
In Untiled 3 Reid creates a sound cloud of cymbals as a setting for the ragged, flaring trumpet of Ahmed Abdullah and Lowe’s saxophone blazes intermittently through the haze like the rotating beam of a lighthouse. This a meditative, mesmerising, exploratory piece which once again evokes late 1950s Mingus. Snarling snatches of tenor ride the wave of Parker’s thoughtful bass, which pulses and builds excitement and suspense. Abdullah’s trumpet thrillingly weaves more conventional figures, interleaved by Reid’s drums and a wash of bells. The thin, out-there needling of Lowe’s sax and the fat, rich, boppish sound of Abdullah’s horn unite to perform an accomplished Laurel and Hardy act.
For me this was an eye- (and ear-) opening introduction to the work of Frank Lowe and I suspect other listeners will be equally impressed. It’s a remarkably luxurious package which is matched by deluxe sound reproduction from the excellent vinyl. While it doesn’t exactly retail at a budget price, the outstanding quality provided in every respect — and the bonus of an access code for a forty minute video — mean that this album is a must-have for any Lowe enthusiast, and should be seriously considered by those who have yet to encounter his music.