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Extended Analysis

Allen Lowe: Jews In Hell/Radical Jewish Acculturation

By Published: May 27, 2007
Allen Lowe
Jews In Hell: Radical Jewish Acculturation
Spaceout Records

Art critic Clement Greenberg once offered a useful explanation of the task of modernism. To paraphrase rather liberally, Greenberg wrote that a modernist work must engage and self-criticize its own basic tenets and those of its chosen medium—not as an affront to its place in the art world, but as a way to "entrench [it] more firmly in its area of competence. In other words, the emphasis on two-dimensionality as qualities of paint and canvas are both an affirmation of and a criticism of the nature of painting.

Understanding what a painting is (not what it is "about or "contains ) is crucial to the art of painting. Greenberg's modernist self-criticism didn't come out of nowhere though. It can be related to the long tradition of Jewish self-criticism, rooted in intellectualism; the study of what it means to be a Jew in order to understand one's place in the culture and to be better-equipped to move that culture forward. Like modernism, Jewishness is a constant process of self-understanding, re-evaluation and regeneration.

What's particularly interesting about this take on Jewishness vis-à-vis modernism is that, 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.

Tracks and Personnel

Tracks: CD1: Lonesome And Dead; Tsuris In Mind; I Licked Bird's Blood; All The Blues You Could Play By Now If Stanley Crouch Was Your Uncle; Suburban Jews; In A Lonely Place; Gwine To Heaven (Gwine To Hebben); Other Bodies Other Souls; The Old Stetl (Where I Was Born); Flakowitz In Love; Oi Death I; Where's Lou Reed?; Soundtrack Theme From The Film Jews In Hell; The Winged Cross I; Shiva I; Failure; Dance Of The Creative Economy; Chasing Our Own Tails Rag; He Will Walk Across The Water (We Will Walk Across The Water); Oh Molly Dear. CD2: Riot On The Sunset Strip; I'm Not Nico I; The Winged Cross II; Blood On The Mountain; Jewtown Shuffle (Who's That Lovin' You Baby?); Shoot Me Up With Your Love (For Johnny Thunders); To Dance Beneath The Cuban Sky; I'm Not Nico II; Jews In Hell; Shiva II; Oi Death II; Leni; I Come From Nowhere; Goyishe World; I Am A Swan; Jaki's Boat; G Major Simplex (Cowboy Tryst-ano); Dark Is The Ground (Cold is the Night); Poor Richard.

Personnel: Allen Lowe: vocals, electric guitar, alto saxophone, synthesizer, bass, electric banjo; Randy Sandke: trumpet; Scott Robinson: contrabass clarinet; Matthew Shipp: piano; Marc Ribot: electric guitar; Rafael Keilt-Freyre: bass; Jim Leyden: bass; Kit Demos: bass; Gary Gemitti: drums; Jeff Shaw: drums; Frank Sanfilippo: drums; Tim Harbeson: organ; Lewis Porter: synthesizer; Erin McKeown: vocals.

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