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Frank Lowe Quartet: Lowe-Down and Blue

Derek Taylor By

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Certain musicians wear their humanity on their sleeves. It bleeds out in their music, whether the facility and prowess is there or not. Frank Lowe falls easily into this camp. The years have not been kind to him, and from a purely technical standpoint his chops have noticeably eroded under the stress. But in creative music, naked technique is only the tip of the iceberg. Pathos and passion are far more relevant and sustaining, and in these areas Lowe still excels. If anything, the earnest vulnerability and accompanying occasional foibles that shadow his playing accentuate, rather than hinder, his ability to move the senses. Lowe has never been one to stand down in the face of a challenge, whether self-imposed or brought about by circumstance. It's the main reason he's still doing what he does and has been able to resist crumbling under the pressures of his chosen path. One such challenge, in the form of Lowe's impending lung surgery, lay looming on the horizon when this session was recorded at the CIMP Spirit Room. It had to be weighing heavily on his mind, but any apprehension felt is funneled directly into the music- an intensely personal (and substantially learned) sampling of the blues.

Joining Lowe on the journey are friends both old and nascent. Bern Nix, one of the founding members of Ornette Coleman's Prime Time, suggests the most obvious link to the blues, both in his instrument and sparse style of phrasing. A colleague from Lowe's '60s sojourn in San Francisco, Michael Carvin shows a strong musical bond with the leader from the start. Dominic Duval chimes in as the newcomer, but as a Spirit Room regular he's well accustomed to fitting into virtually any ensemble setting and sets up a seamless rapport with his partners. Lowe's choice of material reflects his longevity and encyclopedic knowledge of the scene. How many people have covered a Sonny Sharrock tune? In Lowe's hands "Who Does She Hope to Be?," from the guitarist's seminal Ask the Ages album on Axiom, is recast with the heartfelt sentiment intact, but a broad spaciousness added through Nix's quiet chording style. The latter's subtle approach proves the near opposite of Sharrock's fireworks-laden fret play. Lowe plays soft as well, feeding gauzy phrases through his reed and fixating stalwartly on the comely melody. The piece meanders at points and is a shade too long, but to hear Sharrock receive musical props is a lovesome thing.

Celebrating the work of another underappreciated veteran, the group delivers an economical reading of Granchan Moncur III's "Riff Raff," sliding smoothly through a brief D minor theme and into some free form extemporization. Nix's ghostly single note runs float gracefully across Carvin's dancing cymbal rhythm and Lowe again sticks close to the melodic center. Duval's high arco work on the Lowe original "Waiting For Sorrow" almost gets lost in the recording, but once Lowe's throaty breath sounds enter for contrast, the bassist becomes easier to discern. The Patsy Cline vehicle "Crazy" is perhaps the most surprising song choice, and the quartet does gorgeous justice to the shop-worn country ballad. Lowe's slow and measured sally through the theme, punctuated by clipped grunts and the swishing time of Carvin's brushes, creates a superlative romantic mood. The saxophonist may have shed much of the high action energy of his youth, but as this disc calmly asserts, Frank Lowe still got soul aplenty.


Track Listing: Dewey's Tune; Who Does She Hope to Be; Four or Less; Lowe-down & Blue; Riff Raff; Waiting in Sorrow; Crazy; Little Rock's Lament; Zoomtipski; Cherryco; Thabo; Candu.

Personnel: Michael Carvin: drums ; Frank Lowe: tenor sax; Bern Nix: guitar; Dominic Duval: bass.

Title: Lowe-Down and Blue | Year Released: 2003 | Record Label: CIMP Records

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