THE OUTSIDER: Allen Lowe Against the Jazz Tradition

April 2, 2014. By George Grella, with The Booklyn Rail. Read Full Article Here.

The real outsider artists are the ones who find that their terms and goals are outside the mainstream consensus and pursue them with rigor and determination, holding themselves to an entirely different set of standards: Emily Dickinson, Charles Ives, Harry Partch, Charles Bukowski, Hasil Adkins, Banksy. Poetry, classical music, literature, rock-and-roll, painting—historically, these fields have chauvinistically asserted their right to decide what belongs and what doesn’t.

You would think that jazz would be different, but jazz has an outsider problem too. The music, sitting at the margins of American cultural consciousness for decades, both proudly on the outside yet dearly wishing to be let in, is itself ambivalent about musicians who “play outside the changes,” literally and philosophically. Entry here, again, is via the sense that the musician has something eccentric about their thinking, so Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Charles Gayle, and Thelonious Monk are in the fold, although not entirely embraced for their music...

The deep, consistent logic of all these “outsider” musicians creates its own aesthetic world that is of the world of jazz and the blues but not inside it, making perfect sense on its own terms. That is the key. Anyone willing to listen to what the music says, rather than what they wish it would say, can hear the logic—that’s the main reason these musicians have found audiences at the creative edges of rock, contemporary classical, punk, and improvised and world musics. The so-called “jazz police,” who sniff out any deviation from swing, the blues, and AABA song form are Zhdanov-ites who listen so furiously to where the cadence and the bass drum beat fall that they can’t hear the music.

Then there’s Allen Lowe. As the great jazz critic Francis Davis writes in his book Bebop And Nothingness, “Through no fault of his own, Allen Lowe has become jazz’s quintessential outsider artist.” Another succinct way to think of him is through the first sentence in his official autobiography: “Who is Allen Lowe, and why is he doing all these projects and why have you never heard of him?”

Born and raised on Long Island in the mid-1950s, weaned on jazz as a young saxophonist in New York City in the 1960s, he moved in and out of the jazz world and college through the 1980s, calling himself an “unreconstructed bebopper.” He found his way into what, for him, was “new music”: the playing and composing of saxophonist Julius Hemphill, clarinetist Don Byron, trombonist Roswell Rudd, and progressive traditionalists like saxophonist Loren Schoenberg, trombonist Jimmy Knepper, and trumpeter Randy Sandke. He put out a few records, held the job of Director of Jazz New Haven for a few years, then found himself, in 1996, in Maine. Working a day job. Lonely.

“Aside from my day job,” he told me on the phone, “I have nothing else to do. Portland, Maine, despite its image of itself, is culturally dead. So basically I have had nothing to do since the late 1990s.” As he writes in the description for his 2007 album Jews in Hell, which was prompted by his inability to book a gig in Portland, “Out of sheer boredom […] [I did] pick up the guitar, retreat to my basement, and practice, practice, and practice some more. […] I started writing songs. […] I was becoming interested in punk rock and some other things. […] I also started playing an alto sax, part of my new identity in what was beginning to amount to membership in the Musician Protection Program.” He also taught himself sound restoration.

“[Lowe] spent like three years in [his] basement, picking and choosing, mastering” the early jazz and pre-jazz sides—some 6,000—he collected. In those three years restoring sound, mastering, and compiling, he wrote one book, That Devilin’ Tune: A Jazz History 1900-1950, with a companion 36-CD compilation of early jazz; wrote another book, American Pop from Minstrel to Mojo, with a nine-CD collection; put out Really the Blues? A Blues History, another 36-CD set with 80,000 words of notes; and wrote two more books, still unpublished: God Didn’t Like It: Electric Hillbillies, Singing Preachers, and the Beginning of Rock and Roll, 1950-1970, and The Lost Generation: Jazz of the 1950s. All on his own time and his own dime (the published works were brought out by Music & Arts Programs of America; much of the music can be found on the after-market, as downloads or cobbled together through streaming services; and everything is available at The quantity, and quality, of the work is daunting. As Lowe explains, “What else do I have to do up here?”

What else was to make his own records. He began playing and recording again in 2001. Two of his key collaborators on Jews in Hell—an enthrallingly strange mix of blues, country, punk, and everything else that comes off as a learned man abandoning language to recover his barbaric yawp—were guitarist Marc Ribot and pianist Matthew Shipp. In 2011, he put out a three-CD set, Blues and the Empirical Truth. Something prompted him to send me a copy, or I never would have known what he was doing. It’s an astonishing recording, one of the best of that year and, once heard, impossible to forget. Lowe, Ribot, Shipp, Rudd, and pianist Lewis Porter, joined by what seems like a cast of thousands, play the tunes—all originals—like they are inventing a new tradition as they go along, one that just happens to collide with the historical freedom and development of jazz.

Allen Lowe: Jews In Hell/Radical Jewish Acculturation

May 27, 2007. By Clifford Allen, Read Full Article Here.

...for guitarist, saxophonist, composer, engineer and author Allen Lowe, Jews are the first post-modernists. The idea of Jews as a rootless people, since time immemorial without a true homeland but, in spite of it all, with a strong sense of community in disparate surroundings (whether the suburbs, Brooklyn, or Maine), begets a “post-modern ethos. In being uprooted, one also finds that, in order to continue culturally, new materials must be engaged and new connections made.

If such an idea is self-criticism on a shoestring, so be it. For example, saxophonist John Zorn’s fusing of free jazz, no-wave punk energy, film music and traditional Jewish melodies is a radical and post-structural approach to creating art while maintaining ties to one’s cultural idiom. Is this rootless condition for self-criticism one reason that jazz has had an attraction to Jews? Is the work of Zorn or Lowe that different from the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s “Great Black Music” ethos?

Questions like these might make it seem like Lowe’s Jews In Hell: Radical Jewish Acculturation is a concept record meant more to be thought about than listened to. Rather, this record, Lowe’s first since 1994’s Woyzeck’s Death, might better be thought of as his own self-criticism and summation of experiences thus far, told through the lenses of free jazz, bluesy skronk, and punk abandon.

Lowe’s guitar style is itself extraordinarily fragmentary, a disjointed and dissonant, non-linear approach that seems to creep out of nowhere on the solos of “Lonesome And Dead and imbues the bent notes and wide intervallic relationships of “Tsuris In Mind. It’s not the square-wheel rhythms of Robert Pete Williams or the perverse Company-weaned antics of Eugene Chadbourne, though Lowe’s musical landscape surely includes such precedents. His solo on the (sub-) title track may display a bit more logic, building from loose, raunchy blues to detuned Arto Lindsay-esque DNA madness, though the tension of escaping bar lines and rhythmic constraint is present from the beginning.

In a more jazz-based setting, there’s an entirely different side of Lowe’s music visible than punk-folk-blues would belie. The loose rhythms and broadly shifting cadences of his alto suggest an Eric Dolphy/Anthony Braxton approach, though his tone approximates earlier Charlie Parker disciples. In trio with Randy Sandke’s trumpet and Scott Robinson’s contrabass clarinet, there is a kinship with the AACM’s drummer-less swing and bright, swaggering melodies.

There is a quiet honesty on the delicate “film version of the title track (“Soundtrack Theme From The Film Jews In Hell ) and “I Come From Nowhere that makes me look forward to hearing Lowe in a purely improvisational context. Though Jews In Hell offers settings for improvisers like pianist Matthew Shipp (including a piano-guitar duo with Lowe on “Shiva I ) and guitarist Marc Ribot, it would’ve been interesting, for example, to hear Lowe’s own take on multi-instrumentalist Jaki Byard’s post-modernism, despite the excellence with which Shipp approaches such work.

As the song titles suggest, and because there are experiential as well as philosophical underpinnings to the music, Lowe’s lyrics are of major importance. However, the vocals are frequently off-mike and in some cases are hard to decipher (“Suburban Jews, an important track, is a perfect example). Sometimes, as on “Oi Death, muffled and primal atmospherics make the point clearly, but at other times one wishes for a bit more vocal clarity. Then again, Charley Patton isn’t all that easy to decipher, either, though you get the feel of it.

Coupled with the broken rhythms, isolated phrasing and distant-thunder twang of Lowe’s guitar (“Other Bodies Other Souls ), a clear psychological picture of alienation emerges—but it isn’t without the affirmation of humor and wry, life-giving musicianship. Allen Lowe has, with Jews In Hell: Radical Jewish Acculturation, created a complex musical landscape through a summation of experiences and meditation on their integration. It’s self-criticism amid satire, applied both to the musician and the craft of music making, and a vision well worth sharing in.

Other Reviews

Lowe’s CD has become my go-to album when I can’t decide if I am in the mood for the Art Ensemble, the Minutemen or Blind Willie Johnson.
— Internet Post
Allen Lowe has forced us to rethink everything we ‘know’ about jazz – but I’ll add that he’s also forced us to question what we know about pop, country, and the blues as well. He has historicized pop music brilliantly…and the fact that he did it, and not one of the ‘big’ recording companies who are sitting on treasures of American music, is all the more astonishing. This collection should be in every household, or at the least in every library and school. Bravo! Encore!
— John Szwed
Angular, sly and funky, Lowe’s CD is a bona fide wake up call from the avant garde.
— Jonathan Lethem
Through no fault of his own, Allen Lowe has become jazz’s quintessential outsider artist.
— Francis Davis
[Allen Lowe] extracts the most soulful sounds out of a synthesizer since Steve Wonder, composes ambient-evocative instrumentals, and songs with vernacular lyrics that stick in the mind like those of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Mose Allison or Lou Reed.
— Mike Gerber, from the book Jazz Jews
Allen Lowe has made a crucial contribution to American culture, and all those who want to see our musical history whole are in his debt.
— Greil Marcus
Allen Lowe is an American master. I was absolutely astonished by the new CD. The CD blew me away — the compositional transitions, the liner notes — Allen Lowe is a great writer. It’s hillbilly music but it’s trans-national. Allen Lowe is one of the few musicians doing anything new today. He is the tradition. I’m a big fan of Allen Lowe and I think as a musician and a scholar he is very important and I think he is deeply misunderstood because he doesn’t hate himself.
— Anthony Braxton
I was absolutely astonished – it’s hillbilly music but it’s trans-national. Allen Lowe is one of the few musicians doing anything new today. He is the tradition. I’m a big fan of Allen Lowe.
— Anthony Braxton