Best New Jazz Album of 2014


Because explaining the glories of a project like this requires a length unsuited for a listicle, my favorite jazz album of 2014 gets an article all to itself.

Allen Lowe: Mulatto Radio: Field Recordings 1-4 or: A Jew at Large in the Minstrel Diaspora (Constant Sorrow)

Allen Lowe has (at least) a double identity: jazz composer/saxophonist, and scholar of early American jazz and pop. This four-CD set combines those identities even more than usual as it contains a whopping 62 original compositions, many -- perhaps even most; I didn't do the math, but it feels that way -- inspired by the sounds and personalities of early jazz and pre-jazz (both kinds of ragtime, etc.), as detailed vividly in his accompanying notes: Bunk Johnson (we get many movements from a Bunk Johnson Suite), Bix Beiderbecke, Paul Whiteman, Ernest Hogan, James Reese Europe, Jelly Roll Morton, Buddy Bolden, and a few more obscure figures. Later jazz legends are also cited as inspiration for some specific tracks, repeatedly Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, but also Lennie Tristano, Al Haig, Edgard Varese, Henry Mancini, Ran Blake, George Gershwin, gospel pianist Arizona Dranes, Zora Neale Hurston, Anthony Braxton, B-movie actress Barbara Payne, Jaki Byard, and Duke Ellington.

As you might be able to guess from that list, it helps that a fair number of the 19 musicians heard here are considered avant-gardists. This album is no regression; it's one of the rare continuations of the unification of early jazz and modern freedom that could be said to have started with Albert Ayler's placement of New Orleans collective improvisation in an atonal context and was continued, in widely (or wildly) varying ways, by Air, Beaver Harris, and Steve Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra. This is undoubtedly the only album on which trad trumpeter Randy Sandke, Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians reedman Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre (playing tenor sax exclusively here in what turned out to be his last session before his death), iconoclastic avant-jazz pianist Matthew Shipp, and avant-classical pianist Ursula Oppens all play (that my brief descriptions of them are just of what they're known for, not of what they're capable of). Other contributors in the multitude of shifting ensembles (including solos and duos) are tenor saxophonists J.D. Allen, Noah Preminger, and Ras Moshe; clarinetist Ken Peplowski, chameleonic pianist Lewis Porter, tuba player Christopher Meeder, drummers Lou Grassi and Rob Wallace, bassists Kevin Ray and Gerhard Graml, revelatory guitarist Ray Suhy (who doubles on six-string banjo), author/reciter Rick Moody, trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso, and vocalist Dean Bowman. Of these players, the ones who contribute the most might be two of the least-known among them, Porter (an academic who happens to also have considerable 'chops') and Suhy, valuable both for their stylistic diversity and the pungency of their playing.

That's not to slight Lowe himself, who plays alto sax (and a little C melody sax). One of the things that makes Lowe's playing stand out even though this project is full of more famous saxophonists is his unusual sense of rhythm. For instance, on "Cornhusker Ballet" his almost-but-not-quite squared-off rhythms are as close to Monk's sense of rhythm as I've ever heard from a saxophonist (not excepting Charlie Rouse), probably not only because of his love of Monk's music but also because Lowe is drawing on and immersed in the same styles from which Monk's own musical sensibilities evolved. Lowe's playing has its own distinct flavor and sound, and the hell with technique or lack thereof, having your own sound is the epitome of what jazz is about. Needless to say, as these are 'field recordings' (though, yes, made in studios), momentary lapses that would have been "fixed in the mix" on a slicker project are allowed to stand here, and are part of the overall vibe.

Besides the sheer joy I get from this incredibly diverse and colorful music, this ambitious project gets points for sheer vastness of scope, some of the most informative yet ballsy (and often hilarious) notes ever found in a jazz album, possibly the greatest multi-part title in the history of albums, and most of all for being one big attempt to prove Wynton Marsalis wrong. And it quite thoroughly succeeds at the latter ambition, both musically and in the considerable scholarly (though colloquially conveyed) buttressing of Lowe's case in his 32-page booklet -- 8½" x 5¼", so it really is more a chapbook -- existing outside the somewhat awkward packaging of the four CDs. Coming as it does on the heels of the three-CD set Blues and the Empirical Truth, which arose from the same quixotic Marsalis-inspired quest, and with (as he states in the booklet) another three discs of related music he hopes to also release apparently already written, Lowe has gone in a short period of time from under-recorded to prolific. Hooray for IndieGoGo (through which this was funded), and three cheers for free-thinkers who prefer the messy reality to the comforts of the streamlined Official Narrative. - Steve Holtje


Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor who recently composed and recorded the soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days.