Salon: Sharps and Flats

Published December 6, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

About 90 years ago, popular musical novelty acts featured the whole family of saxophones from alto to bass. The instrument had not found its place in either jazz or marching bands, and had low status. With the bleating and squawking and all that flashy brass to wave around, the sax groups must have been entertaining -- and an embarrassment to serious musicians. Which is ironic given that since the arrival and triumph of the World Saxophone Quartet in 1977, all-sax lineups have become a standard jazz format. And a half-dozen such groups have built vivid, distinct and durable personalities.

One of those groups is the SaxEmble, formed by veteran avant-garde tenor Frank Lowe in 1989, when he decided he just had to play with the explosive young alto-tenor James Carter. With the flexible underpinning of drummer Cindy Blackman, the SaxEmble is not pure horn. The other reed players are Michael Marcus on bass sax and manzello, and Cassius Richmond on alto, with occasional crucial help from Alex Harding on baritone and Bobby LaVell on second tenor.

A fascinating proposition: A lot of free jazz can be thought of as an "abstract expressionist" (in critic Francis Davis's words) response to rhythm & blues. Those links certainly explain the SaxEmble's material. Covers include heavy expressionists like David "Fathead" Newman ("Hard Times") and Eddie Harris ("Freedom Jazz Dance"), as well as abstract soul masters like Thelonious Monk ("Rhythm-a-ning") and Albert Ayler ("Ghosts"). Moreover, Lowe's most pungent original, "War of the Worlds," strongly evokes the honk-funk of his kindred spirit in the World Saxophone Quartet, David Murray. And, even when he was barely out of his teens, Carter's work danced across the border between free and soul jazz; like Lowe, he understands that relation can be as venerable as bebop's chord cathedrals.

The thick lower register of baritone and bass beefs up "Hard Times" and takes "Ghosts" further into New Orleans second line than Ayler could manage with his small groups (in fact, "Ghosts" is such a natural for this treatment it should become a Mardi Gras standard for brass bands). Carter's solo on "Hard Times" throws in brilliant double-tongued phrases and moves from one idea to the next with a speed and coherence that explains why his playing throws down a challenge for everyone who hears him. But the SaxEmble track to start with, the one that can delight and awe the acid-jazzers, the neoboppers, the moldy figs and the heaven funkateers is "Freedom Jazz Dance/Rhythm-a-ning," the most audacious medley in years. Cassius Richmond provides an arrangement that allows a wonderfully smooth ascent from Harris's phrases into Monk's and back again. Oddly, the structure probably wouldn't be so clear if it wasn't played entirely by saxophones. This track, like the whole program and execution of the SaxEmble, show the sort of comprehensive thinking through that marks truly ambitious modern jazz.

(The Qwest album is where to begin, but those who enjoy it should seek out the group's 1991 debut, as "Frank Lowe & the Saxemple," called "Inappropriate Choices," on the German label ITM/Pacific.)

By David Fenton

David Fenton is a regular contributor to Salon.

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