Frank Lowe‘s Black Beings is one of my favorite ESP-Disk releases. Coming toward the end of the label’s initial lifespan, it’s frequently overlooked even by free jazz fans, despite being a potent fistful of skronkin’ awesomeness. The band features Lowe and Joseph Jarman on saxophones, one Raymond Lee Cheng (aka “The Wizard”) on violin, William Parker—making his recorded debut—on bass, and Rashid Sinan on drums. Two of its three tracks were quite long to start with, but when the album was recently reissued on CD, they became even longer. The disc’s opening number, “In Trane’s Name,” is now 33 minutes long. Jarman’s saxophone solos (he plays alto and soprano; Lowe sticks to tenor) are unfettered, nearly screaming, while the leader’s responses start out cleaner and more melodic, but eventually equal the intensity of the Art Ensemble of Chicago member’s blowing. Parker, young as he is on this 1973 date, is nevertheless recognizable, already strumming the strings with thunderous force and bowing like he’s trying to saw the neck from the body. Cheng’s violin playing was attributed to Leroy Jenkins for many years, since “The Wizard” was seen as a pseudonym for someone who couldn’t reveal his or her identity for contractual reasons, and the man who actually did it never appeared on any other albums. His contributions are quite wild and noisy, maintaining the high-velocity, high-energy feel of the performance as a whole. Rashid Sinan, meanwhile, is the engine that drives it all. He never settles into a rattling, polyrhythmic free jazz patter along the lines of Rashied Ali; instead, he attacks the kit like a devotee of Ronald Shannon Jackson, killing it with machine-gun snare, crashing cymbals, and kick drum work worthy of a hard rock player.
“In Trane’s Name” is followed by the five-minute “Brother Joseph,” a solo saxophone piece that serves as a short breather for band and listener alike, before the 22-minute “Thulani,” which is another searing blast, albeit one that seems to subdivide into sections/movements, rather than being just a platform for one blood-boiling solo after another like “In Trane’s Name.” Seriously, Black Beings is one of the most intense, trying-to-sprint-through-a-wind-tunnel free jazz albums ever, an absolute must-hear.
And now there’s a sequel. The other week, ESP-Disk released The Loweski, a 40-minute disc of previously unreleased music from the same performance that yielded Black Beings. (Buy it from Amazon.) Is it as intense as the first album? In some respects. It opens with a six-minute solo by Jarman that’s as concerned with space as with sound—that is to say, he pauses a lot between skronking saxophone screeches. But when the band kicks in, they kick pretty hard. The album is divided into five tracks, but it’s one long piece, and doesn’t really have the variety of moods represented on Black Beings, but if you like that album as much as I do (and you should), you’ll appreciate this new second volume.
ESP-Disk has also just released Blues for Albert Ayler, another previously unreleased early ’70s performance, this one by tenor saxophonist Frank Wright. (Buy it from Amazon.) Wright made two studio albums for the label, Frank Wright Trio and Your Prayer, in 1964 and 1966 respectively, before decamping for Paris. He spent several years there, releasing records on the BYG Actuel, America and Sun labels, under his own name and as a member of the Center of the World quartet with pianist Bobby Few, bassist Alan Silva and drummer Muhammad Ali (brother of Rashied). Wright was a fervid, gospel-influenced player who also owed a major stylistic debt to Albert Ayler—like Ayler, he was a Cleveland native who migrated to New York; the Ayler Holy Ghost box set includes some absolutely primal live recordings of Wright guesting with the older man’s band at a hometown gig.
His band on Blues for Albert Ayler, recorded in 1974 at the club Ali’s Alley, run by drummer Rashied Ali, includes guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer, a player whose work has almost always left me cold, and frequently been actively annoying; bassist Benny Wilson, with whom I’m not familiar; and Ali on drums. You may be as unfamiliar with Wilson as I was, going in, but you won’t be by the time this disc ends. Blues for Albert Ayler, like The Loweski, offers a single piece broken into sections, and Part 4 is a 12-minute bass solo. You’ve been warned.
Even discounting that, though, Blues for Albert Ayler is just not one of Frank Wright’s best albums. He peaked in France – One for John and the albums he made with alto saxophonist Noah Howard, Uhura Na Umoja and Space Dimension, are his best work. The Center of the World albums follow close behind. But his language on the horn was always somewhat limited, and Blues for Albert Ayler finds him going as far as he can, and winding up nowhere special. For most of its 75-minute running time, Wright and Ulmer are playing simultaneously, beating a simple pattern into the ground. Wright’s signature move—a high-pitched whinnying scream—is heard over, and over, and over again, as Ulmer plays fumblefingered riffs and knots of notes that sound like he’s tuning the guitar as he goes. It’s somewhat inevitable that the listener’s attention begins to flag; there’s just too little variety, and too much raw blowing and scraping (and rattling of the drum kit). Focused listening becomes impossible, and you just have to let the music wash over you in a wave. Which eventually turns into waiting for the wave to pass.
So yeah, ultimately neither of these albums is essential. But The Loweski at least complements Black Beings, while Blues for Albert Ayler is free jazz at its most self-indulgent, as clear a case of diminishing returns as one could imagine.