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Frank Lowe: powerful, undersung free jazz tenor saxophonist

SOURCE: Published: 2003-10-08
Memphis, TN, June 24 1943 - New York, NY, Sept. 19 2003



Woefully undersung until recently, Frank Lowe was a ferociously energetic tenor saxophonist who drew inspiration from the first and second waves of free jazz in the 1960s. Principally remembered for his work with drummer Rashied Ali and a couple of the dozen-plus albums issued under his name, Lowe had subsisted in the shadows of John Coltrane and Albert Ayler for much of his career. In the past few years he had seen a strong return to the limelight, abruptly ended when he lost his long battle with lung cancer.

At the age of twelve Lowe took up the saxophone. He studied under Packy Axton, an owner of soul label Stax Records who hired Lowe to work for him. After dropping out of the University of Kansas, Lowe went to San Francisco and immersed himself in the Bay Areas free jazz movement. Donald Rafael Garrett and Sonny Simmons, two of the regions principal free saxophonists, tutored Lowe and encouraged him to head for New York. A meeting with Ornette Coleman cinched the deal, and soon Lowe was hunting for work in the Big Apple.

One of Lowes first employers in New York was Sun Ra, in whose Arkestra Lowe toiled for two years. An opportunity to record with Alice Coltrane, the widow of his idol, led to a fruitful relationship with drummer Rashied Ali. Lowe and Ali recorded the masterpiece Duo Exchange in 1973 for Alis Survival Records label, announcing to the world that a bold new voice on tenor sax was emerging. In that same year Lowe recorded his debut as a leader, Black Beings, for the ESP label. The record featured Joseph Jarman of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, another prime influence on the young saxophonist.

During the 1970s Lowe cut several more albums, ranging in quality from the impressive The Flam (1975, Black Saint) to the poorly executed Doctor Too-Much (1978, Kharma). Trumpeter Don Cherry was a fast friend, utilizing Lowes expansive knowledge of jazz forms on some fine albums and the soundtrack to The Holy Mountain. Lowe also produced and performed in his own film, Street Music. His ambitions and love of all musical forms led Lowe to experiment with everything from orchestras to flat-out weirdness, the latter exemplified by Dont Punk Out (1980, QED) with guitarist Eugene Chadbourne.

In the late 70s Lowe began collaborating with violinist Billy Bang, often in the Jazz Doctors. After his solid 1984 album Decision in Paradise (Soul Note), Lowe took time off from the recording studio to gig and work out some health issues that had begun to plague him. He returned in mighty fashion in 1991 with Saxemble, a saxophone quartet featuring the young lion James Carter. The group released Inappropriate Choices (1991, ITM) and was later expanded to a sax sextet plus drummer Cindy Blackman.

Bob Rusch, head of the Cadence Jazz empire, opened new doors for Lowe by inviting him to participate in some CIMP sessions. Despite his battle with lung cancer, Lowe was in fairly strong form on those dates and began to reclaim his audience after too long away from the spotlight. His last recording was 2002s Lowe-Down and Blue (CIMP) with guitarist Bern Nix, bassist Dominic Duval, and his longtime friend, drummer Michael Carvin.

On September 19, 2003, Frank Lowe succumbed to the lung cancer that had plagued him for several years. He leaves behind a variegated body of recordings and memorable performances that will no doubt continue to inspire adventurous jazzmen for years to come.

- Todd S. Jenkins

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