Joe Albany and Low Down

C. Michael Bailey By

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Joseph Albani (1924-1988), better known as Joe Albany, is a footnote in jazz history. A monumentally talented pianist with an exceptionally fragile constitution, Albany, like the late Chet Baker pianist Dick Twardzik, was hampered by a self-doubt relieved by heroin. Albany differed from Twardzik in that, like Baker, he lived well beyond the average junkie lifespan to providing a glimpse of what the late-life sequale of chemical dependency—a brutal fade-out really looks like.

Unlike Baker, Art Pepper, and Frank Morgan, Albany did not have the opportunity to record widely, particularly at home. Albany recorded a single album, The Right Combination (Riverside, 1957) and did not record again until 1972, when he enjoyed a "comeback" living as an expatriate in Europe between 1971 and 1976. He recorded a respectable amount of music that was of generally very high quality.

What we have here, nearly 30 years after his death, is a fleeting glimpse of an artist, maybe not a genius, but certainly exceptional, in the form of an almost convulsively rendered memoire by his daughter Amy-Jo Albany, a Jeff Preiss movie fashioned after the memoire, and a brilliantly assembled soundtrack, spearheaded by Israeli musician and producer Ohad Talmor. Albany would almost rate a full-scale biography was it not for the trajectory of his story being so cliché and told so many times already. But the taste offered here is a good one, provocative and rich, but deeply so, like dark chocolate and without any possibility of a positive resolution... just like real life is often.

Low Down: Junk, Jazz, and Other Fairy Tales from Childhood
A.J. Albany
176 Pages
ISBN: #978-1935639763
Tin House Books

Amy-Jo Albany tells a story, stream of consciousness, full of Faulknerian fits-and-starts, perfectly framing the subject of a young girl growing up with chemically-dependent parents in 1970s Los Angeles. In music reportage, this is unique. The majority of such biographical work focuses on the artist first and his or her surroundings second. Art and Laurie Pepper's Straight Life (1979), Hampton Hawes' Raise Up Off Me (1974); James Gavin's Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker (2002), Anita O'Day's High Times Hard Times (1983) all frame the effect of the artist on himself. Laurie Pepper's ART: Why I Stuck with a Junkie Jazzman (2014) offered a completely unvarnished point of view from the spouse of the artist breaks with the above tradition.

What Amy-Jo Albany has done is a light year forward from this approach. Written as brief and often jarring vignettes, Low Down is a female coming-of-age story experienced beneath the staggering circumstances of the privation and uncertainty of the drug-addled bohemian life. Amy-Jo recounts her junkie mother who left when she Amy-Jo was young, telling stories of finding her mother passed out, naked on the kitchen floor, face down in her vomit after particularly intense shot of Dilaudid or unconscious during a trip to the park after two Nembutal capsules and a bottle of cheap wine.

Not that her father offered her much more security. In an out of jail and rehab, scuffling to for work and to make ends meet, Albany and Amy-Jo moved from flophouse to flophouse frequently. Amy-Jo was often left with her maternal grandmother, Gram, who provided the only stability she was to know until she was an adult. Riveting and horrific is her stark account of her sexual awakening and introduction to sex by her mother's younger brother. Drug Rehab group therapy is littered with a million of these stories, all as desperate and sad as the next.

If there is anything bright in Low Down it is the fractured interpolation of Amy-Jo's commentary as an adult into the story of a child. Not just a child, but one that survived. Amy-Jo does not entertain self-pity. She accepts these experiences in stride, processing them as best possible, emerging with a staid experience and wisdom readily evident in her interviews for both the book and movie. The more interesting story here would be her biography... at the end of that there is at least light and life and something to look forward to.

Low Down
John Hawkes, Elle Fanning
115 minutes
Bona Fide Productions
Oscilloscope Laboratories

Low Down, the movie starring John Hawkes (Winter's Bone, Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Sessions) as bebop pianist Joe Albany and Elle Fanning (We Bought a Zoo, Super 8) as Albany's daughter, Amy-Jo is a desperately stark film, captured on Super 16 mm film that imparts just enough graininess to summon memories of 1970 Polaroids. The cinematography alone lends an authenticity to the film that a sepia tone does to a daguerreotype. Stylistically, the film is an intelligently arranged and produced film whose over-all subject matter is quite bleak. It is reminiscent of the modern noir Seven (New Line Cinema, 1995) in both tone and substance.

The movie is set during a two-year period in the mid-1970s nominally surrounding Albany's expatriation to Europe. Time is treated with a certain dramatic elasticity. It is a series of tone vignettes playing out against the filthy old face of Los Angeles and Hollywood, not as they are often romantically depicted, but as they were... sordid and base, as are the characters, save for daughter Albany and her grandmother, Gram, played here superbly by Glenn Close.

The movie departs the book in a dramatically sanitized fashion. Amy-Jo Albany's mother was every bit the junkie her father was but is depicted here as a sliding alcoholic, a mean-spirited dilettante too impressed with her own dissolution. What any viewer of this film would conclude by today's conventional wisdom is that the daughter Albany was a victim of child abuse at the hands of her hapless parents.

From a purely film-making perspective, Low Down is a brilliant casting of the Billy Strayhorn's jazz standard "Lush Life," perfectly captured in the song's final verse:

Romance is mush, stifling those who strive I'll live a lush life in some small dive and there I'll be while I rot with the rest of those whose lives are lonely too

There is nothing new or novel about the plot arc of Low Down (if plot is even the correct term). Bookstore cutout binds are full of such tales. It is to the credit of Amy-Jo Albany that she neither put too fine a point on her story nor made it anything other than what it was, which as a series of event to recover from as much as learn by. My hat is off to her.

Joe Albany
Low Down Original Movie Soundtrack

But what of the music of Joe Albany? He was a superb pianist and interpreter of both the Great American Songbook and jazz standards. His playing, like the aforementioned Twardzik was beautifully idiosyncratic. Albany's meter was the equivalent of Thelonious Monk's tone choice: something outside the norm that eventually became the norm. On the soundtrack assembled and augmented by Ohad Talmor, the Albany solo performances of "Angel Eyes," "Lush Life," and "The Nearness of You" reveal a highly ornamented style of play in the tradition of Art Tatum but possessing an intentional and directed element that Tatum often sounded as if he lacked.

Most revealing is Talmor's mash-up of the Albany original "AB Blues." Taking the basic piano track, Talmor arranges a large ensemble to play over Albany's playing evoking sounds from New Orleans through Monk contemporaneously. I believe the importance of Albany lies in his playing being an evolution beyond that of Monk. Had he lived unencumbered, he would have created a school of jazz piano to compete with that of Bill Evans. Albany was an exceptional artist with an exceptionally sad story.

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