Graded on a Curve:
Low Down (OST)

Accounts of struggling, self-injurious musicians are peppered throughout the history of jazz, and pianist Joe Albany’s story is all too familiar. It’s a narrative of great artistic promise compromised by a long bout with heroin addiction, and last year his daughter Amy-Jo’s memoir Low Down: Junk, Jazz, and Other Fairy Tales from Childhood was adapted into a movie. Naturally, it has a soundtrack; composed of entries from jazz heavyweights, original music by Ohad Talmor, and numerous examples essaying Albany’s considerable talent, Low Down is available on LP/CD August 7 via Light in the Attic.

In terms of the 24 frames-per-second treatment, jazz is a rare subject better suited to straight documentary than creative adaptation. A large reason resides in the essence of performance, but other issues relate to such factors as idolization, misapprehension, specious didacticism, and superficiality; to varying extents all jazz movies (all movies period) reflect the point of view of their makers, but historical fiction and biopics too often shoulder baggage altering, weakening, distorting, or perhaps worse of all, reducing jazz’s voluminous nature to an easily digestible proposition.

I’ve yet to watch Low Down, the recent Jeff Preiss-directed biopic of Joe Albany as filtered through the remembrances of his daughter, and so these 15 selections serve as an advertisement for the film. I’m happy to report success in this function, the set offering a solid introduction to Albany and his milieu while placing a sampling of the man’s work back in the new release racks after a lengthy absence.

Joe Albany’s career began in earnest upon joining the orchestra of composer-arranger and multi-instrumentalist Benny Carter. As told to Carole Langer in her highly useful 1980 documentary portrait Joe Albany… a Jazz Life, he also worked with Big Joe Turner and Georgie Auld, though his legendary status largely derives from his relationship with saxophonist Charlie Parker.

Performance recordings do survive; the Fresh Sound CD Live at the Finale Club and More contains five tunes from Los Angeles in February-March of ’46 by a lineup of Parker, Albany, trumpeter Miles Davis, bassist Addison Farmer, and drummer Chuck Thompson. Airchecks burdened with audio intermittently as rough as a feline’s tongue, amidst the surface noise those tracks offer evidence of a thriving ability, and had Albany been better documented in this era his name would likely inspire as much esteem as Dodo Marmarosa or Al Haig.

He does figure on four quality sides Lester Young made for Aladdin in’46, but thereafter tough times including jail took over and with one exception Albany didn’t appear on wax again until the early ‘70s. That sole record, sourced from a rehearsal, is extremely worthwhile; The Right Combination was issued on LP in ’57 by Riverside and teams the pianist with the lean sharp tenor sax of Warne Marsh and rhythmic support from bassist Bob Whitlock and the uncredited drumming of the session’s engineer Ralph Garretson.

A terrific album (found in a cornball sleeve design), it opens with a version of trumpeter Clifford Brown’s “Daahoud.” Low Down (sporting a far more appealing cover) does likewise, though in an excerpt of a recording conceived for the film by composer-arranger-saxophonist Ohad Talmor. It’s a bright sliver of post-bop fluidity consisting of piano and trumpet, and its quick fade ushers in the track that follows “Daahoud” on The Right Combination, a reading of the Dennis-Brent composition “Angel Eyes.”

As part of Albany’s comeback (more like the beginning of his fruitful studio and concert run) he delivered a record in 1972 for the British label Spotlite aptly titled Proto-Bopper; amongst the first wave of Modern Jazz, the pianist’s development was contemporaneous (or nearly so) to a fair amount of material soon to become part of the jazz songbook.

Many post-boppers seized these compositions as a platform from which to spring, but they often riffed upon prior interpretations instead of the purer pop sensibilities of the originals. But the emotion in Albany’s explorations frequently lands closer to the romantic aura and melodic core of the sources as his expansions, alterations and improvisational edge eschew the syrupy, the saccharine and the maudlin. Having key Tristano-ite Marsh on hand certainly helps, though he doesn’t enter “Angel Eyes” until four minutes in.

Reinforcing Albany’s approach to standards on Low Down is Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” from a March 1966 session that produced three solo and a half-dozen trio pieces with bassist Leroy Vinnegar and drummer Frank Capp, all unreleased until Fresh Sound corralled them onto CD in 2001. The solo “Lush Life” and the buoyant group plunge into Parker’s “Barbados” positively jump out of the speakers, contrasting starkly with the understandably modest fidelity of “Angel Eyes” and the solo keyboard rumination upon Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom” captured live in Paris in 1988, the year Albany passed.

Notably, Jeff Priess was the cinematographer employed by photographer-filmmaker Bruce Weber for Broken Noses, a documentary concerning boxing, and Let’s Get Lost, an indispensible exposé of the troubled life of needle-haunted trumpeter Chet Baker. His credits bode well for Low Down’s value, as does the casting of John Hawkes as Albany, Elle Fanning as Amy-Jo, and support from Glenn Close, Peter Dinklage, and Flea, who executive produced with fellow Red Hot Chili Pepper Anthony Kiedis.

But Low Down is a picture of independent means, a reality observable through its soundtrack’s licensing. Alongside the entries taken from Albany’s Fresh Sound releases is a bounty owned by the Concord Group and specifically from the vaults of Riverside. Not just the numbers from The Right Combination but “Think Deep” from Coleman Hawkins’ excellent ’57 LP The Hawk Flies High and “Big Eight Blues,” a jewel by Jack Teagarden’s Big Eight featuring Ben Webster; originally grooved into shellac in ’38 for the Hot Record Society, it was collected by Riverside onto split disc with Pee Wee Russell’s Rhythmmakers.

Given the sheer impact of Parker on Albany’s artistry, his oeuvre containing Birdtown Birds, a ‘73 album of a concert date from Montmartre and Bird Lives!, a ’79 studio effort with bassist Art Davis and drummer Roy Haynes (that I’m truly salivating to hear), Low Down’s lack of an actual recording of the alto sax giant might seem odd. Riverside’s achievements are sizeable however (frankly an understatement) and extend herein to “Deeds Not Words,” a piece by Bill Lee (Spike’s dad don’tcha know) included on and titling drummer extraordinaire Max Roach’s nifty long-player of ‘58.

The Talmor composition “Free Couples,” a two-minute piece for bass and drums hovering between atmospheric and urgent, hangs in very well amid all this splendor, as does “Everybody Knew but Me,” a loose and unexpectedly gripping home-taped segment finding Albany adding vocals to his playful stab at the Irving Berlin chestnut. And Low Down’s strong latter portion continues with a Talmor-directed piano trio excursion into Monk’s “Round Midnight.”

This leads into Thelonious himself via Ruby My Dear” from ’57 with Hawkins on sax, a gem followed by Albany’s tightly focused “The Nearness of You” from The Right Combination. Closing the program is “AB Blues/AJ Blues,” a chancy but successful comingling of an Albany solo recording and music written by Talmor.

The arrangement and the inflection of the horns surround the sauntering keys to remind me a bit of Mingus (Albany briefly played with the bassist in ’63) and by extension the fingers of Jaki Byard. In a plus, the LP’s whole presents a few mysteries for those unfamiliar with the film; for one instance, what’s the operatic “Romeo Et Juliette – Gounot – Je Veux Vivre Dans Ce Reve” as sung by Russian soprano Antonina Nezhdanova doing here?

That Low Down cultivates curiosity and promise rather than triggering suspicion and frustration is testimony to its worth. I can only hope the images these fine sounds augment don’t leave me disappointed.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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