Day 35 – Devil’s Elbow

Allen Lowe – Blues and the Empirical Truth

I can’t remember exactly how my attention was drawn to this 3CD set a few weeks ago, but I read that Allen was a jazz/blues historian and archivist as well as sax player and composer/arranger, which in conjunction with the title definitely sounded interesting. There were some magic names on the cover too – Roswell Rudd and Marc Ribot. The reviews seemed positive and the price I could buy it for was right… so I did.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I am sure I didn’t get it. The first track was a determinedly lo-fi recording that put me in mind of something from Trout Mask Replica, albeit with some furious atonal Ribotisms. I think that was a bit of a statement of intent – the sound quality improved after that – and Ribot came back for track three, where he played Don Cherry to Allen Lowe’s Ornette. In between was a rather more melodic piece featuring guitarist Ray Suhy – then he came back for track four playing a searing slide. And so it went on, zigzagging from style to style but all managing to grasp onto the blues in some way.

I had not been aware of Ray Suhy before, but I see he plays not only with pianist Lewis Porter (also on this record) in their jazz quartet, but also in death metal bands. Both sides appear here, the latter particularly in a track named Blues In Shreds, which might give you an idea of his playing. He’s pretty damned extraordinary. Another player I’ll keep an eye out for in future is pianist Matthew Shipp, who caused my jaw to drop open a couple of times. Allen’s liner notes are great too, a mixture of humour, tetchiness and fulsome praise for his band. Reminds me a little of Mingus. The only thing I’m not so enthusiastic about is the played-in-real-time laptop drums, which jar in both style and audio quality. 

That’s really the most basic of introductions – there’s something like three and three-quarter hours of music here. Just when you think you’ve got the measure of it, Roswell Rudd will play something that has you thinking ‘that’s a trumpet, surely?’ or the engineer will step up to the mic and growl out a vocal in a Tom Waits-y way. Then it’ll be back to Ornette Coleman and His Magic Band. For one track, anyway, before it’s the turn of a 12-bar, or a C-melody sax wailing against a detuned piano. It’ll be months before I’ve fully assimilated this, but I’m loving the journey so far.


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