Michael Marcus: Truth, Love and Soul

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Frank Lowe

AAJ: Frank Lowe figures in your important collaborations chiefly because of the arranging you did for his saxophone group. Please tell us about meeting and working with Frank.

MM: Frank Lowe was a beautiful musician and person. He who had a tone to die for on tenor saxophone. When you heard just one note from Lowe, you knew it was Lowe...an original voice and composer in the modern avant-garde scene of the late twentieth century. Frank knew how to breathe correctly when he played saxophone, which enabled him to get that soulful, unique and undeniable tone. Lowe grew up in Memphis and heard all the soul (Stax Records) one could digest while in his formative years. Whenever anyone met Frank, they knew that they were in the presence of a hip, sweet cat.

MichaelI met Lowe in NYC a couple of months before I started playing in Ted Daniel's band Energy in early '83. Lowe and I quickly developed a friendship that lasted until his passing. We had a lot in common, particularly our mutual understanding and awareness of the essence of jazz along with being woodwindists, and also our extreme knowledge of modern jazz recordings. We talked nearly everyday during our twenty years of camaraderie in Midtown Manhattan, and spent hours practicing, listening to music, exchanging ideas and living jazz. Frank was so encouraging to so many musicians that he met during his life, old or young, and always showed them respect when deserved.

Lowe loved that I could understand, hear, and read his completely original way of notating and playing music. Lowe was one-of-a-kind. I remember one time he took me down to the Lower East Side in the early '80s and introduced me to Don Cherry, Ed Blackwell and "Jazz" (Denis Charles) while they were all conversing on a corner. The next night I heard C Sharpe at the University of the Streets and was blown away (C Sharpe was part of the 1956 Lee Morgan recording on Blue Note Indeed). C Sharpe had the phraseology of Bird, but in his own way and he was very inspirational. Spiritual cat—a man of the times, like Lowe. During that era I also met and became friends with the late, great and under-appreciated Jimmy Vass. Lowe and I walked the streets many-a-day. There was always a story and real life drama with Frank.

. Frank always gave me positive encouragement to pursue my dream on becoming exclusively a clarinetist. We both agreed and became enthusiastic when we would listen to Alvin Batiste's tone, which we would say "draws you in like the way Tina Brooks or Coltrane did." This agreement happened innumerable times with hundreds of great jazz artists. Lowe was a walking book. Incidentally, at 5:00 AM this morning, my friend in Mississippi, drummer Alvin Fielder called me to tell me the sad news about Mr. Batiste's passing.

AAJ: How did you become involved with Frank Lowe and The Saxemple? There are at least two recordings Inappropriate Choices (ITM, 1991) and Saxemble (on Quincy Jones' label Qwest/Warner, from 1996) that feature both your playing and arranging.

MM: Around '90, Lowe decided to put together a saxophone group with drums. This was Lowe's idea as an answer to the WSQ [World Saxophone Quartet], since their saxophone group did not have drums at the time. He told me about a young phenomenon on the tenor sax that had just came to town, who was playing with Lester Bowie's organ group downtown—James Carter. He asked James if he would participate in a recording session and James agreed. I believe JC was around nineteen or twenty at the time. Since I had arranging abilities and Frank knew that I had an important voice that was essential to making the Saxemble different from the WSQ, playing the bass saxophone, he asked me to join the band as well.

Now all he needed was a fourth voice and a drummer. Lowe and I came up with Carlos Ward for the fourth horn and for the drum chair, well, Phillip Wilson was in Lester Bowie's group at that same time as JC, so Lowe asked him to do the recording, too. Frank had performed in Phillip's band a few years back in the '70s and so they already had a hip friendship. Phillip was a brilliant, sensitive drummer. He played the new music, having heavy roots in jazz and rhythm & blues and really had an advanced ear. I remember seeing him in San Francisco when he was touring with the Paul Butterfield Blues band, which had little David Sanborn in the horn section—1968.

The chemistry was great with this band and we rehearsed at my apartment several times. Frank Lowe and The Saxemple was born. After a few years going by and a few gigs, a friend of Frank and mine, Craig Morton, who at the time was producing recordings for Quincy Jones' label Qwest, got us signed to Warner Bros. It was decided though, amongst the group and mutually, that it would not be a group under Lowe's name anymore and now it would be a co-op group where we were all equals in regard to the music, like the WSQ or ROVA. The Saxemble. We got Cindy Blackman for the recording since Phillip was tragically killed a few years before the date for Qwest. I made more money on that Warner recording than any other recording in my career to this date.

MichaelI remember Lowe and I wanted to do a show with the WSQ and bill it as THE WSQ vs. The Saxemble. We wanted the gig to be a classic Battle of the Bands concert, maybe at Town Hall, NYC. We asked Blueitt, and he liked the idea, but it never materialized into a reality. Frank Lowe will always get credit for coming up with that original name for the Saxemble (the spelling changed for the second recording). I believe the Saxemble was one of the best saxophone bands ever, though it was short lived. Listen.

AAJ: Saxophonist Fred Hess once told me that after playing with the young James Carter in Ron Miles band, he had to go back to extensive wood-shedding. It seems the young Carter's playing made Hess re-evaluate certain aspects of his playing.

MM: Yeah, James is a magnificent multi-instrumentalist and a lovely person as well. I have had the pleasure to practice over the years, multiple times with James in my apartment. James is an extremely generous artist and humanitarian, too. He has huge ears and his dexterity is amazing on all the woodwinds. Once, I was playing piano at a jam at my house, and James picked up an old Haynes wood piccolo that I had and started playing "Giant Steps" at a fast tempo, completely moving through the changes like butter. After that he picked up a bass saxophone and played a slow blues before we all went berserk.

James knows the blues and plays the art form well. This is an ingredient of the music that a lot of the younger jazz musicians never master. I have a classic tape of four tenor improvisations that's historical—James, Frank Lowe, Sonny Simmons and me—all playing tenor saxophones. It's beautiful. Some years back, James turned me onto a brilliant musician that I befriended from Detroit, Larry Smith. He is another voice on the saxophone that the world needs to hear.



AAJ: One of the things that is noticeable about your career is that you tend to work with cats on-and-off for considerable lengths of time. I think of Ted Daniel (the duet Duology), your recordings with Sonny Simmons and we already mentioned the late Frank Lowe.

MM: There is nothing more important in life than having a friend. All three of the names you just mentioned are my friends. When you develop a connection with fellow artists, it's natural that a life-long exchange, productive growth process and love for each other will occur.

Sonny Simmons has been a mentor, a teacher, inspiration, a partner, a buddy, a comrade in the arena of music, shared all the (good and bad) realities of a friendship that has lasted over 27 years with me. "Sunyo continues to integrate in my life as we co-lead the great band The Cosmosamatics and also always, we both look forward to practice together (sharing and exchanging multiple musical ideas) when we are not individually in another country or working in our respective individual groups. I am one of the few horn players that has the ability to telepathically hook up with Sonny in a frontline. His music is very advanced and sophisticated. We have had many memorable experiences within the tours we did together internationally.

Simmons is a giant in the music and has a voice that needs to be heard by all. He is the modern day bridge to Coltrane, Dolphy and Bird, continuing their message through his unique, spiritual and individualistically original music. I think that the U.S. Government should immediately acknowledge all the artists like Sonny (particularly in his age bracket), who are obviously innovators in the music and are national treasures, by supplying them with at least all the basic necessities of life that they need, so they can continue to flourish with their contributions in the American indigenous art form called jazz. I must, though, acknowledge the fantastic contributions that the Jazz Foundation of America have provided for the community of jazz artists in need in this country. Hats off to them!

I still see a bright future for The Cosmosamatics. We have recorded seven CDs and one recording is in the can for a fall '07 release on Not Two Records. Without prejudice, this is one of the best bands on the avant-garde scene, though we play bebop, too [laughs]...hey, just ask Sonny if you don't believe me.

Ted Daniel, like Lowe and Sonny, is one of my best friends. Ted is one of the most decent, ethical human beings that I know, besides being a master trumpet player in the new music. Ted and I go back about 24 years...friends for life! What a tone Teddy has on trumpet. Incidentally, I knew Ted many years before I arrived in NYC from his prestigious discography and kinda knew I would hook up with him well when we finally performed music together. T.D. is on my debut and second recording (Under The Wire and Here At!). Ted and I created our special duet called Duology about a year ago and, without a doubt, it is one of the most enjoyable groups that I ever have been part of. Our first release of this duo is on Boxholder Records and it is called Duology. We keep getting better and better as a performing entity. The sound of this duet is made up exclusively of me on Bb clarinet and Ted on assorted brass (trumpet, flugelhorn, cornet, etc.). We are planning our next recording to be a live date from an upcoming concert. This group is a sound ecosystem that enables the improviser to reach multidimensional corridors while in the immediate improvisational state—what a terrific feeling.


Neglected Recordings

AAJ: We have talked about the fact that you feel some of your recordings have been neglected; although the discs reflect key aspects of your artistry. Please elaborate.

MM: The problem with being an artist that has recordings of quality out in the world, is that they can get lost in the shuffle if they are not advertised by the label who produced the recording or written about by the critics that are in the current pool of journalism in the Jazz arena. Fortunately, in my case, it seems that longevity in the recording and performance field might be a good factor in order to get some of my personal recordings talked about and listened to. I love that I am getting better all the time as a composer, as I am as an improviser and interpreter of other great jazz artists' music. Something to look forward to in the development of a modern day artist.

MichaelAAJ: I wondered if you would be more detailed and mention some of the discs in particular and what some of these dates mean in the development of your artistry. For example there are some dates which did not get wide distribution but still illustrate my point; the recording Soulifications (Soul Note, 2006) or your solo date, Speakin Out(Drimala, 2002).

MM: Actually, every one of my recordings all have a relationship in my development as a composer and improviser in sort of a continuum, all being in the chronological order of my sound story. Every artist must accept that their voice is their voice. I just found out that my friend in San Francisco, pianist/composer, B.J. Papa, recorded one of my compositions—a tune I wrote specifically for B.J. called "Cruisin' With B.J." By the way, B.J. has mentored many upcoming, aspiring musicians in the Bay Area over the years. He's a San Francisco institution in the jazz community. Everyone loves B.J. Papa! When I heard the news that B.J. honored me by recording my tune, the feeling I felt was so wonderful, a reward much greater than when you record your own music, knowing a fellow musician believes in what you're contributing.

Having said all that [laughs], I would love to talk about each of my thirteen or fourteen recordings under my name, but that would take too much time in this interview, so let's just address a few, including the ones you just mentioned.

Soulifications, on Soul Note, a trio I did with Tarus Mateen and Nasheet Waits which was recorded in Milan during a small tour we did in Italy. Both Tarus and Nasheet are extraordinary and inventive artists on their respective instruments. I have worked and recorded with them each individually, but this was the first time we all worked together. They are, by the way, the rhythm team in the Jason Moran Trio. I am very proud of a ballad on that album called "Harmonious Beautious." Also in this recording was the first time that I overdubbed myself on some of the melodies. I got the idea from a Zoot Sims recording that he did on ABC years ago. The title cut came out real nice, too—two clarinets! Leo Parker was the first artist to do this in modern jazz and I know Rahsaan did it as well.

Speakin' Out, on Drimala Records...a solo outing...actually my first on multiple woodwinds. Unfortunately it's out-of-print, however, I think it can be still found on the 'net. An important challenge for any instrumentalist to try and tackle is mainly to keep in mind to keep the listener's interest while you're expressing yourself. I did a hip tune for Jimmy Giuffre on Bb clarinet and also a tune I like called "ZoneTones" on tenor sax. There was no overdubbing on this recording—straight melodies and/or improvisations. There is something to be said about being the only person in the studio—no distractions...just you.

I would also like to talk briefly about my latest release that came out in January '07 called The Magic Door on Not Two Records. Not Two is a wonderful label out of Poland that is documenting some fine music, mainly of American artists. The Magic Door is my debut recording exclusively on Bb clarinet and so this recording is special to me, because as I mentioned earlier in this interview, Bb clarinet is now my main focus. There are some of my best-to-date compositions on this recording and the performances by all the musicians involved in the recording (François Grillot, Jay Rosen, Rashaan Carter, Daniel Levin, Eric Revis and Newman Taylor Baker) were spiritual and true.

François and Jay make a fine rhythm section, which lays the carpet or groove for the majority of the tunes on the date. Jay Rosen and I work in several bands together including The Cosmosamatics and our friendship is special. This recording has an extremely important and historical cover. The photo of the door is taken in Krakow, Poland...Blue Reality. The radio DJs might enjoy this recording.

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