Billy Bang Quintet Featuring Frank Lowe - Above and Beyond (2007)
By Mark Saleski
It can be a tough thing to witness an aging musician head toward (or past) the point of no return. For me, the worst example was Miles. Sure he played that concert with Quincy at Montreux but the power behind the man with the horn just wasn't there.
There are counterexamples out there. Ornette Coleman's Sound Grammar was a stunner. Frank Lowe's final recording with violinist Billy Bang is right there as well. What makes Above and Beyond (recorded in 2003) that much more amazing is that Lowe had been suffering from lung cancer for quite some time; he succumbed to the disease later that year.
Listening to these long form compositions, you would never know that Lowe was in a state of physical decline. On his own Nothing But Love," Lowe's sax maintains a warm and burnished tone throughout. On The opening Silent Observation," Lowe and Bang take a quick unison turn through the main theme before Lowe splits off to build a long solo that slowly builds in intensity. Lowe employs sounds that manage to span an almost Paul Desmond-like hush all the way to some upper register squeals. Bang is certainly Lowe's equal here, taking a solo that almost comes apart at the seams with its ferocity.
[SOMETHING ELSE! APPRECIATION: Having seen up close the violence and destruction of war, Billy Bang is remembered for promoting peace through his music.]
The closing At Play In The Fields Of The Lord" can be heard as a companion piece to Silent Observation." With somewhat similar tempos and harmonic development, the two compositions are fine and inspiring examples of what this pair could do, not only on that night but on their many previous collaborations.
It's Dark Silhouette" that's the centerpiece of this concert. Pianist Andrew Bemkey ratchets up the tension by beginning with a lengthy (five minutes or so) solo section that at points heads into Cecil Taylor territory. This gives way to the snakey theme layed down by bassist Todd Nicholson before Bang launches his elegant and bluesy solo. Lowe runs with that motif but soon leaps into the land of extended technique with interval jumps, more upper register righteousness, and even some textured valve clatter.
It was Frank Lowe's wish that this concert recording see the light of day. Obviously, he knew that something special happened that night in 2003. Many thanks to Billy Bang, who himself passed last April, for championing this idea.
The jazz world misses Frank Lowe but at least we have this document of the man's creative powers.