Graded on a Curve:
New Releases from

Dedicated to uncompromising music of assorted styles, but primarily avant-jazz, psychedelia, and folk, the ESP-Disk label endures in its seventh decade by offering four new releases on April 28. They are Normal Street by Painted Faces (vinyl), GALUT: Ballads of Wadi​-​Sabi by Alan Sondheim with Azure Carter, Edward Schneider and Rachel Rosenkrantz (wallet-lite package CDr), and America: The Rough Cut and In the Dark by Allen Lowe (digipak CD/digipak 3CD). All four are considered below.

Brooklyn-based Painted Faces, the solo endeavor of David Drucker, has released a slew of material since 2009, but I haven’t heard any of it until now, not even the prior ESP-Disk release, Tales From the Shiny Apartment, which came out in 2019. Painted Faces is part of a more recent ESP-Disk impulse, specifically the addition of noise music to the label’s roster. Not that Painted Faces are strictly about making a racket; no, there is tangible song structure on Normal Street and even some acoustic strumming.

In fact, this album is more about drifting abstraction than needling abrasion, though the opening title track suggests otherwise, at least until it shifts into a stretch that’s sure to please drone mavens far and wide (there is a bit of squall as the end nears). “An American Werewolf in Ridgewood” and “Forest Techno” are reminiscent of the lo-fi scene in its earliest days, “Painted Dollhouse” is collage-like and spacy until it taps into a stuttering CD-like repetition, and “Playing the Field the Ambassador Prowls” got me to thinking of Thinking Fellers Union Local 282. And that’s just dandy.

That’s also just side one. “Laughing Charlie” takes a drone current, adds some baroque organ and then gets nice and twisted, a tendency that continues deep into the side, even as matters get more songlike, particularly in the druggy folk of “Contact Mind.” Also collage-y and a big drifter, “Xea” brings the LP to a close. It takes a few listens for the whole, which initially registers as inspired but loose, to really cohere, but once it does it’s hard to shake. Normal Street is an impressive effort, and I’m eager to hear more from David Drucker.

Of the artists under review here, Alan Sondheim is the only one reaching back to ESP-Disk’s early days, as the label issued his albums Ritual-All-770 and T’Other Little Tune in 1967 and ’68, respectively. Both records are admirably hard to pin down. There’s no shortage of free jazz action, but there’s plenty that’s not jazzy at all, which might be why Sondheim (who’s also a poet, theorist, philosopher, and artist) is less well-known than many of his cohorts from the label’s heyday.

After a lengthy break from recording (or at least putting out music), Sondheim returned to activity in 2005, and he’s been steadily at it since, with a handful of releases on ESP-Disk, plus the Fire Museum, Qbico, Porter, Tequila Sunrise, Public Eyesore, My Dance the Skull, Lurker Bias, Cor Ardens, and Majmua Music labels (a variety of LPs, CDs, CDrs, and cassettes).

A recurring aspect of this output is a penchant for collaboration, with Azure Carter frequently part of the scheme. She’s heard often on GALUT: Ballads of Wadi​-​Sabi, credited with voice and song, as Edward Schneider plays alto sax, Rachel Rosenkrantz plays bass and Sondheim plays various instruments. For GALUT, there’s a lot less skronk than there was on Ritual-All-770 and T’Other Little Tune, and that’s fine, because times have changed.

Sondheim and Co.’s conceptual thrust for GALUT is in part a simultaneous embrace of opposites (being and not being, music and not music, sound and not sound, etc.), along with an opposition to war, with “notawar,” which Carter sings, one of the record’s standouts. Something GALUT shares with Sondheim’s first two ESP-Disks is the breadth of the instrumental landscape. This record expands the range. I really dig “rsh,” “said,” and “thunder,” all of which brought Derek Bailey to mind. Also impressive is GALUT remaining consistently interesting across 75 minutes. Sondheim has still got it, and that’s great.

Allen Lowe first began playing saxophone in the 1960s, living in NYC and catching Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus at Slug’s Saloon plus a whole bunch of the era’s rock bands, including the Grateful Dead and The Mothers of Invention. Lowe performed back then (his band even opened for the return of pianist Eubie Blake), but he didn’t release his first recording until 1988, For Poor B.B., and then continued into the ’90s with a series of historically focused releases that featured such heavyweights as David Murray, Lewis Porter, Marc Ribot, Roswell Rudd, and Doc Cheatham.

After a move to Maine in 1996, there was a period of what Lowe describes as an “involuntary musical retirement.” He did pick up the guitar again (important to America: The Rough Cut) along with writing a series of books on music history, including American Pop from Minstrel to Mojo, with an accompanying 9CD set, That Devilin’ Tune: A Jazz History 1900-1950, with a 36CD set, and Really the Blues? A Blues History, 1893-1959, also with a 36CD set. I’ve yet to read any of the three, but I’m eager to immerse myself in them all. It’s going to take a good long time.

“Allen Lowe is the tradition.” That quote belongs to the great saxophonist-composer-bandleader-teacher Anthony Braxton. But don’t get it mixed up. Lowe is no traditionalist. His musical associates in the ’90s should be a tipoff. Also; Lowe records for ESP-Disk, and that’s an even bigger indication of the whereabouts of his artistic sensibility. A return to recording around 2005 found Lowe collaborating with pianist Matthew Shipp.

It feels appropriate to engage with In the Dark first, as it documents the compositional gush that occurred as Lowe was struggling with the aftereffects of cancer surgery in his sinuses; difficulty breathing, a lack of sleep, and then neuropathy set in, but simultaneously came this reignition of the songwriting impulse that produced three compact discs of material. Lowe states that the outpouring was related to the blankness he experienced and the feeling that he was near death. That he overcame those health difficulties and was able to organize and play on In the Dark is cause for celebration.

The band is Lowe in tenor, Aaron Johnson on alto and clarinet, Ken Peplowski on clarinet, Lisa Parrott on baritone sax, Brian Simontacchi on trombone, Kellin Hannas on trumpet, Lewis Porter on piano and synth, Alex Tremblay and Kyle Colina on bass, and Rob Landis on drums. The music they play includes elements of free jazz, but the pieces are quite structured, sometimes bluesy but occasionally recalling what’s sometimes described as “free bop,” an association that intensifies an early 1960s atmosphere.

However, Porter’s electric piano and synth complicates this scenario wonderfully, as again, Lowe is pretty far away from tuxedo-clad jazz conservatism. He’s a lot closer to Mingus in spirit, wielding a deep knowledge and love of the music’s roots and pushing it forward through individualism and wild infusions of idiosyncratic flair. And the nod to Mingus drives home that a whole lot of what’s heard on In the Dark reaches back before bop, with disc three’s opener “In the Jungle” a fine example. The prevalence of clarinet reinforces the pre-bop aspect, as well.

Lowe states that America: The Rough Cut was part of his creative outpouring (“Declension” appears on both sets), though this single disc set is quite distinct in its conception relating to “American music and American song,” and also Lowe’s commentary on how American musicians across the stylistic spectrum “handle that old-time music and those old song forms.”

What’s heard on America: The Rough Cut is in part an alternative to what Lowe considers to be saccharine and unimaginative approaches to those old-time forms. And as someone who’s heard a few too many releases in the Americana category that are edgeless and predictable, I concur with Lowe’s evaluation wholeheartedly.

America: The Rough Cut is a robust and often boisterous affair, but it’s not an attempt at form destruction, not even in “Metallic Taste,” which sounds a little bit like a duo of Hound Dog Taylor and Frank Lowe. The sweet capper is “At a Baptist Meeting,” a track recorded live in 2014 with trombonists Ray Anderson and Roswell Rudd in the band. Taken together, America: The Rough Cut and In the Dark are a startling achievement that sits amongst ESP-Disk’s best releases.

Painted Faces, Normal Street

Alan Sondheim, GALUT

Allen Lowe and the Constant Sorrow Orchestra, In the Dark

Allen Lowe and the Constant Sorrow Orchestra, America: The Rough Cut

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