A Fireside Chat With Frank Lowe
“ You want to put them in a certain bin, but as far as putting ideas together, you just have this big pallet that you can draw from and you don?t have to separate these things. There is no thing that says you can?t put a purple beside a green or a white beside an orange. ”
In a prior life, I did buying for Tower Records. As a buyer, aside from the weekly visits from record reps pitching product, I would get requests from customers. One customer in particular thought he was king. A rather obnoxious long in the toother, this fella was old timing, giving me lectures on how Kenny G shouldn't be in the jazz section (as if the marquee on the storefront read something remotely similar to my name) and how he used to go and see Charlie Parker when he was a kid in Los Angeles. But when it came to record request, he kept harping on Frank Lowe. Now I knew of Lowe from his ESP record, Black Beings, which is the poo. But this old timer was chastising me for not having Bodies & Soul, a CIMP release, distributed by North Country, which is easy enough to deal with when you own the record store, but when you are a spoke in the stupidly large Tower wheel, it becomes almost an impossibility and in the year I was doing buying, I never got the record into the region. Fast forward to some months later and on a trip to San Francisco, I came across Amoeba (the Godsend of record stores) and behold, they had a copy and because that old timer had bugged the shit out of me, I picked it up. It was quite possibly the best record I heard that year and to this day, one of my favorites, leading me to explore and appreciate Lowe's work with Black Saint, Soul Note, Eminem, and No More. In fact, I have become somewhat of a Lowe aficionado, but not without good reason. Lowe can play a mean tenor. Through Michael Marcus, I was able to get Lowe on the Roadshow, and as always, I am honored to bring it to you, unedited and in his own words.
All About Jazz: Let's start from the beginning.
Frank Lowe: Basically, Fred, it was the sound of the instrument, like you're listening to a rock and roll record or a pop record. I noticed they always had the vocals, but I was always interested in the instruments that played after they finished singing, like when a saxophonist or a drummer took a solo, it always perked my ears up as a kid. In some kind of way, I was always drawn to that part of it. It was just an attraction like that. As a kid growing up, I always listened for who was always cool like The Coasters and James Brown and stuff like that. I always got off of them when the saxophonist or the trumpet player or the drummer took a solo. It was almost like they were talking too. It was almost like it was words for the instruments like it was words for the vocalists. It spoke to me like that as a real young kid. I could hear instruments talking just like I could hear vocalists talking. First it was alto and then the tenor, when I was around late twelve, thirteen is when I first starting dealing with it. As far as the tenor was concerned, Gene Ammons always had my ears locked up. I heard Gene Ammons.
My parents dug Count Basie and so that made a lot of Lester Young being played around my house. So I grew up with Lester Young in my ears even though there was a lot of Duke Ellington with Coleman Hawkins and Johnny Hodges and so forth. Some kind of way, the family I grew up in seemed to gravitate toward Count Basie and Louis Jordan. I had this Lester Young sound in my ears even though I didn't know it was Lester Young. So some kind of way, that pulled me towards Gene Ammons. I remember walking into this place where you could buy sodas and stuff when I was a really young kid like after school or something and they had this Gene Ammons record playing on the jukebox. It was some Soul Stirrin'. It was a Bennie Green thing. Bennie Green had a recording on Blue Note called Soul Stirrin' with Elvin Jones and Gene Ammons and Billy Root and Sonny Clark. And I heard Gene Ammons solo on that and I was flattened. It destroyed me, totally destroyed me and I was no more good. I was a tenor saxophone freak, probably before then, but that certified it. That just got me in. I was hearing Coltrane with Miles at the same time, but it was this Gene Ammons solo that I just had to try the tenor.
FJ: That should come as a cold shower to critics who assume you are coming from Trane or Albert Ayler.
FL: Well, Fred, Albert Ayler is one of my favorite people. I think of music as 360 degrees. I think of it as, like Von Freeman is like one of my favorite saxophonists on the planet because Von Freeman plays the ultimate. Von Freeman plays totally great inside and outside. That's, as you might say, that is what I want to be when I grow up. Von Freeman is eighty years old and to me, he is the best saxophonist on the planet because Von deals with both the inside and the outside of the music. He don't run from any part of it and he does them both well. That's where I come from. You can call it avant-garde. You can call it hard bop. You can call it soul, but I dig the whole spectrum, the outside and inside, the Albert Ayler part of it, the Johnny Griffin part of it, the King Curtis part of it, the Boots Randolph 'Yakety Sax,' part of it. I like it all, Fred. I come from all. I don't dismiss none of that stuff. On this recent LP I got, I did this tune that some people might call country and western. It was a Patsy Cline/Willie Nelson (Cline sang and Nelson wrote) called 'Crazy.'
FJ: The Nashville theme song.
FL: You dig? I recorded that. I think of music like that. I love that tune. It's the one coming out on CIMP that I just finished and it is on that one. It has Michael Carvin on drums, Bern Nix on guitar, and Dominic Duval on bass and myself on tenor. It is called Lowe Down and Blue.
FJ: Not to be confused with Lowe and Behold.
FL: Yeah, yeah.
FJ: And your tenure with Alice Coltrane.
FL: Well, actually, I was staying in San Francisco and I met Ornette Coleman, Mr. Ornette Coleman. This was the second time that Ornette had been through San Francisco, but this was when I decided to let Ornette know what I was trying to do musically. He became aware of it and he told me that I should come to New York. After he said those words, I moved to New York. I was moving to New York, I thought, to study with Ornette, but Ornette had me come over to his house and I played this music that he had out. He called it the tenor harmolodic chart. So I played this piece of music and then he told me that really more than studying, I needed to work. It was through Ornette that I hooked up with Alice Coltrane. It was through Mr. Ornette Coleman that I became part of Ms. Alice Coltrane's band and I am forever grateful for that.
I remember the gig that I did was at the Berkeley Jazz Festival in Berkeley, right outside of San Francisco. It was like I had just left Berkeley two weeks before and to come back with Alice Coltrane was like a dream come true. The band, at that time, consisted of Archie Shepp, Jimmy Garrison, Clifford Jarvis, Alice and myself. I was in heaven, Fred. As a kid, I was a Coltrane freak and a Sonny Rollins freak too. I was just into the tenor saxophone, but my ears had always been open to Wayne Shorter and Coltrane. It was part of my being. It was just part of my natural being. When I was coming up, most of the tenor saxophone players, they were trying to get their Coltrane licks together. I guess it is still like that. He was so dominate in the music. I was just lucky that my first professional band happened to be in Ms. Alice Coltrane's band. I always look on it as a blessing. It was just a gift. I learned so much from Alice. I got a chance to study the music of John Coltrane really right up close, as close as you probably could get. It was a blessing to me because after that, I did my first recording with Ms. Coltrane, an Impulse! thing called World Galaxy and I was just glad to be a part of it. Later I met Don Cherry and he was the first one to take me to Europe. I record on an orchestra record he did called Relativity Suite. Then there was something called Brown Rice.
FJ: Don Cherry was exploring Indian and Arabic music during that period.
FL: Don doing stuff like what they call world music, I think Don kind of invented that. He's the father of that. I think Don played a big part in bring that to the attention of the music public at large. Sometimes they call it fusion, but let me tell you, Fred, I hear music like this. What Don was doing was like he was putting like soul, funk, with what somebody might call avant-garde, with some ethnic music. Don has heard all these musics and he put them together and they made one music out of it and that is what I think it is. I think it is one music. If you are creative enough to put these things together and make them groove, that's what it is. That's the way I always heard it. I don't see no separation in these things. I think if you put them together and you make one beautiful piece of listening material from it, what law says these things have to have these categories? They are good to classify to sell recordings. You want to put them in a certain bin, but as far as putting ideas together, you just have this big pallet that you can draw from and you don't have to separate these things. There is no thing that says you can't put a purple beside a green or a white beside an orange. That is what I think. And at the same time, you don't do it just to put stuff together. These are great idioms, like hard bop is one of the most difficult musics, bebop and stuff is the Bible of so called improvisational music. So it is no joke. When you do that, you study it. You have to do your best with it and you bring out the best in the music itself. You do it justice.
FJ: Justice was had on your ESP record, Black Beings.
FL: Oh, yeah, I was lucky. I liked to be on that label because my favorite people were on that label like Pharoah and Albert Ayler and Sun Ra. I got in on the tail end of it. That was my idea of being out at that time. Coltrane had recorded Ascension, so I was starting from Ascension and going towards nirvana. But I only did one recording like that because it is not the kind of feeling that you can reproduce all the time. It was something I wanted to get into and explore, but it is not something that I would tackle everyday. That color can become monotonous and a bit redundant, but it is always good to give it that old college try. That's what I did and that's what it was. It was for that time and for that situation.
FJ: Black Beings is no college try. It is a graduate thesis. But who is The Wizard (unnamed violin player often incorrectly cited as Leroy Jenkins)?
FL: It's a guy named Raymund Cheng, a violinist. He is on Lester Bowie's CD called Rope-A-Dope. That's Raymund Cheng.
FJ: And a young William Parker is featured.
FL: I was playing with William then. William has always been a really great bassist, really great, creative, and strong. I was playing with Don Cherry and he came around and he was sitting in and I dug William's sound. I was deeply into the Art Ensemble at the time, so you notice the first CDs that I did under my name, that ESP CD had Joseph Jarman on it. Fresh (Black Lion) had Lester Bowie and the first one on Soul Note/Black Saint (The Flam) had Leo Smith on it. It had these AACM cats on it because I had this deep understanding that the affiliation, I just liked to hook up those of my peers. I was coming right where they were coming from and so that was the hook up for me. Guys like that appeared on my first six, seven, eight records. It's got that Mid-Western thing, cats from Chicago and St. Louis, Lester Bowie, Joe Bowie, Bobo Shaw, Leo Smith, Olu Dara. You see where I am coming from? That is how I grew being fortunate to come through a Coltrane university, I was just exploring what the next people in line to me were, like Lester and Roscoe Mitchell. They seemed to be the next people to really add something to the music.
FJ: In the midst of this Art Ensemble fixation, you recorded a duo with Eugene Chadbourne, Don't Punk Out, which Emanem has reissued.
FL: Oh, yeah, I am into, some of those colors I got from Derek Bailey and Anthony Braxton. I have always been into Braxton. Braxton was part, it is this mathematician thing. I think we did fourteen tunes on there. I recently did something like that again with a bassist named Bernard Santacruz, but it was more romantic, a bit more melodic. I believed that if there was going to be some avant-garde stuff happening, I believed like you could compartmentalize it. You didn't have to have those long stretches of tunes. You could make them like a minute and a half and have them brief and have them concise and tell a story real good. Get in and get out. I was trying to show an example of that, that the music didn't have to be long and drawn out. You could make these little statements, these miniature statements and they could be very strong and creative and you could capsulate everything you wanted to say in two minutes.
FJ: The longest tune is barely over five minutes.
FL: Yeah, well, it is like what I did with Bernard Santacruz. It is basically the same type of situation only the compositions I think are a bit more impressionistic. It is just some ideas. The music, you tell a little story. Like you are writing a letter, you have an introduction, a main body, and you have the salutation, you have the closing and that is it. In the main body, you try to say everything you have to say right in there. That is how I approach a solo.
FJ: You featured Grachan Moncur III on Decision in Paradise (Soul Note).
FL: That's my dream band. Yeah, I always dug Grachan from those records with Jackie McLean, Destination Out! and One Step Beyond. I always dug Grachan from those. I just dug his sound. Oh, man. Grachan is a true minimalist. He's like the king of the Wayne Shorter concept, the less is more concept. Check it out.
FJ: And the triumph, Bodies & Soul.
FL: I had fun doing that. I had fun. I got a chance to play some compositions of my favorite people and also participate with Mr. Moffett. It was maybe the second or third time we had been in the studio. All the people in that era, Charles Moffett, Ed Blackwell, Billy Higgins, they are like, what can you say? What can you say about them cats?
FJ: The take on 'Impressions' is something else.
FL: Oh, yeah, Fred. We kicked it in. We kicked it in.
FJ: You returned to the trio form with Vision Blue (CIMP).
FL: Oh, yeah, Steve Neil. Sometimes I just try to get, it is like this, Fred, I study the music and when I do a recording, it is like a report card. I just like to show what I studied over a six or eight month period. I do it and I give it to the people to grade. This is what I have been doing in the past year. I hope you like it and here it is. That is what the recordings are for me. It is what I have been doing since the last time you heard from me and this is what I have to say and feel with me.
FJ: Your recent sessions have been for No More.
FL: With Billy and the other one with another one of my favorite bands. We had some good fun doing that with Jack, Ralph, and Steve.
FJ: And the future?
FL: This one is a quartet that is coming out called Lowe Down and Blue. It has Carvin on drums, Bern Nix on guitar, and Dominic Duval on bass and myself on tenor. It should be out any day now. I am working on some things now, Billy Bang and myself.
Related Link: Frank Lowe Discography