July 13, 2024


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Allen Lowe: All of my projects are arguments with things, with people and movements: Video, Photos

Allen Lowe, a man of multiple talents — musician, songwriter, author, historian — likes to argue. Luckily for jazz fans, those arguments fuel his creative output.

His life is being captured in a documentary as he works on an array of new projects as well as a monthly jazz series at Best Video that is seeing its audience grow with every show. Lowe is no stranger to crowded rooms, as he has been playing to them locally and elsewhere for years. He currently seems to be in a sort of renaissance era — though if you ask him, he may argue that point as well.

I have sort of a weirdly checkered career in terms of people knowing what I do,” said Lowe over coffee at Best Video a couple of weeks ago. A celebrated musician who worked regularly throughout the area in the ​80s and ​90s, he noted that a move to Maine in 1996 somewhat stunted his career. He said he tried to organize a few things without success.

The upshot was, because of the difficulty of living there and functioning, I really had to do everything on my own,” he added. Those self-propelled — and self-published — projects included a ​big jazz history project” called That Devil in Tune, a book with 36 CDs that Lowe mastered himself. ​It’s the best history out there,” he added.

JAZZ COMPOSER SERIES] Allen Lowe - Music For Every Occasion - Roulette

In 2016 Lowe moved back to Hamden with hopes of getting back into the groove of performing live.

I started little by little trying to get my feet wet again in the music scene and it was getting tougher,” he said. ​The thing about getting old is that all of a sudden, you’re old and you don’t realize it until you see it in the perceptions of others.”

The second volume was written when Lowe ​could barely move.” The year 2021 saw the release of both volumes while Lowe underwent extensive surgery on his face to remove a tumor.

It was very tricky,” he noted. ​I had just finished the books and I couldn’t see, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t breathe through my nose.”

An article about the book in The Wall Street Journal brought more fame and recognition.

2019 was starting to get going and I got sick again and then the pandemic, so it was everything conspired to prevent me from getting places, but I didn’t do so badly,” he said with a smile.

Another unexpected route toward getting more people to hear his music was via social media, specifically Facebook.

Facebook was a way to just get back in touch with community,” he said. ​I met half my band members there.”

It is also a place where Lowe has famously documented more of those arguments he thrives off of and uses in his work.

Allen Lowe: No Holds Barred

All of my projects are arguments with things, with people, with people and things and movements,” he said. ​Facebook has been a great liberating force. It’s pissed people off, but you know I’ve always felt like a part of this intellectual history which is very oppositional.”

One of those projects, about Louis Armstrong, stirred the interest of New York filmmaker Jonathan Scheuer, who according to Lowe decided he wanted to make a documentary out of it. The two met on Facebook and became good friends. The first thing they did was come up with a title for the film.

The title of it is I Should Have Stayed Dead,” Lowe said with a laugh. ​It’s semi-autobiographical just because some of the ways I’ve felt since I’ve come back.”

That title was taken from a line by a poet named D.A. Levy, who Lowe said was a Cleveland countercultural poet in the ​60s and ​just a genius.”

Scheuer and Lowe organized a series of recording sessions to be filmed that would address the Louis Armstrong project, which includes mostly original writing based on interpretations of different eras through which Armstrong lived. There are pieces that relate to the swing era and Glenn Miller, to Guy Lombardo, Albert Ayler, and Duke Ellington, among others.

Recording sessions were filmed over the past two months. Musicians involved include Ray Andersen, who Lowe said has a New Haven connection, and guitarist Marc Ribot, ​who has shown a lot of faith in me when no one else did.”

This documentary — which will include interviews and narrative as well as music — is ​really about me and my life as filtered through the work that I do,” Lowe said. He believes it will be about a year before it is completed. In the meantime, he is also working on a project called Blues and the Black Vernacular, ​which tries to point out, and I think successfully, that Black music is a lot more than just the blues.” He’s getting back to performing more regularly, including a couple of semi-regular gigs in New York City and this most recent series at Best Video, which began in the fall and has seen a steady increase in patrons each month.

It’s a very, very appreciative and nice audience,” said Lowe. ​The nice thing about this gig, besides that I love playing, is that it’s going back to playing standards, and to me that’s how you look at the fundamentals … to me you learn the fundamentals of improvisation and jazz improvisations. You gotta learn chord changes and you gotta know the standards.”

The band, called The All-Stars, typically includes Mark Caplan on tenor saxophone, Gary Grippo on guitar, Rob Landis on drums, and Will Goble on bass.

I have that jazz musician’s pessimism where I assume no one will show up, but it’s been very solid,” said Lowe. ​Jazz has an audience. It’s a small audience, but there’s an audience. It’s like my books. They said my books didn’t have a big enough audience, but when they did that WSJ article, I got hundreds of orders. It’s a small but acute audience. It’s very focused. They know what they want and this is what they want.”

To Lowe, this has something to do with the place of jazz in contemporary society. ​Jazz is not some academic abstract music. Some people will hear it as such. It’s a music that will never have the same kind of audience as pop music, but, you know, when you go to Smalls in New York, it’s packed every night. Dizzy’s is packed every night. So, there is an audience for this stuff. You just have to target them very specifically and let them know it’s here.”

Allen Lowe and the Constant Sorrow Orchestra | International Festival of  Arts and Ideas

Lowe expressed gratitude for Best Video and Julie Smith, who he calls ​my savior locally.”

I can’t talk enough about how important it’s been to me. Honestly, in my illness at my lowest point … when I was just ready to turn it all in both literally and figuratively, she was one of the few people who, when you talked to her, listened and was willing to talk and wanted to do stuff, which is great.”

Lowe also released two musical projects last year: a three-disc set titled In The Dark and another disc titled Rough Cut. Both are comprised of an eclectic mix of original songs written when Lowe was recovering from an operation and dealing with neuropathy and only brief periods of sleep. With lingering symptoms and another surgery on the horizon, I asked Lowe if any of this has changed how he approaches his current and future projects (which also include a manuscript about his cancer ordeal).

There’s maybe increased urgency at times, but honestly I’m so driven that the prospect of dying and being sick didn’t change that much,” he said. ​Maybe it made me want to hurry up a little bit. Aging has been more of a pressing point because I’ll be 70 in April.”

And perhaps those arguments also keep him going? He had one more thing to say about that:

It’s also an argument with myself,” he said. ​I torment myself after every recording. I say ​I’m going to retire.’ ” But ​I’m too obsessed to retire.”

Lowe’s obsessions make for musical magic, as was witnessed last week at the January edition of Best Video’s Monthly Jazz Night series. On this evening, The All-Stars included Grippo on guitar, Goble on bass, and Barry Riese on drums. By the 7 p.m. start time the small tables of four were filled up, as were most of the bar stools in the back. Bottles of wine stood side by side with cups of coffee and tea as Smith asked if everyone was comfy and introduced Lowe and the band. As the lights were dimmed, Lowe counted down and into the music, launching right into ​Caravan,” which saw the musicians performing with an ease that gave them ample room to be loose, have fun, and get the crowd excited for more. Afterward Lowe joked with the crowd, saying ​there’s so many people here. I figure you’re in the wrong place.”

Allen Lowe Octet - Live at Smalls Jazz Club - New York City - 4/6/22 -  YouTube

Lowe offered back history on a few of the tunes presented throughout the night, such as ​Solar,” which he said is credited to Miles Davis but was written by Chuck Wade, who he added was one of the first and greatest bebop guitarists who also recorded with Davis.

He also spoke between sprawling versions of ​Sweet Lorraine” and ​Out of Nowhere” of having a gig at Smalls in New York soon, at first mistakenly calling it Slugs. He corrected himself, saying Slugs closed years ago. He then spoke of how he first went there as a 15-year-old to see the Mingus Band back when it was ​not a good time for jazz” because ​rock had taken over.” He was enamored of how Mingus played the blues ​so slow.”

I don’t know why I’m telling you this. Look up Slugs!” he shouted to cheers and laughter.

The final song of the evening, ​Cheek to Cheek,” would most likely have had some dancers partaking if there had been more room to do so, but the heads bobbing, legs shaking, and singing along more than showed the sweet and sweeping effect Lowe and the band had on the audience, creating an atmosphere somewhere between a smoky bar filled with tables covered in decades of carvings and a dinner club dressed with linen tablecloths. By the sound of the applause and the joyous conversations of those lingering afterward, maybe not even Lowe could argue that this was not the perfect place to be.

Allen Lowe – Wikipedia

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